Making Use of What We’ve Got: Revamping America’s Old Infrastructure for a Cleaner Future


John Adams once said, “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” That is certainly true of America’s infrastructure and climate change.

The infrastructure America has built over the past century has become a terrible burden to our society and our planet. An overgrown highway system has led to millions of cars polluting the environment and billions of dollars spent on maintenance instead of investing in cleaner ways of travel. Our electric grid brings power generated by dirty coal and oil to our homes and businesses, feeding our reliance on fossil fuels and accelerating climate change.

Sometimes it might seem as though we need to scrap it all and start over. But while America’s current infrastructure is environmentally threatening and inefficient, many parts of it can - and should - provide the groundwork from which we can build a better, cleaner system.

In the energy sector, for example, the electricity that is generated from solar panels and wind turbines will power the same homes that coal and gas have in past decades. The electric grid, the power lines, and the appliances we use will still be largely be the same. Intelligent retrofitting of the existing power grid can substantially ease the fiscal impact of making 100% renewable energy a reality, while also speeding up the process.

Transportation and building infrastructure provide similar opportunities. A lot of progress can be made by equipping existing roads with better bike lanes and public transit systems. European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen - which were car dominated as recently as the 1970s - are examples of cities that were able to turn their roads into arteries of clean transportation. Smart, considered public policies can wean American cities off of cars, while enhancing the quality of life at the same time. Expanding green spaces and retrofitting old structures with solar panels and energy-saving materials like better insulation are also worthwhile investments that can push our urban areas into the 21st century without having to rebuild them. Our report published in May, Blueprint for Tomorrow, gives many more examples of how high-value investments in transforming our existing infrastructure can help address the tough challenges of today and tomorrow. 

All this should not discount the immense amount of work that needs to be done in order to secure a sustainable way of life for the future. Building the wind farms and solar panels necessary to replace oil and gas will take a massive, society-wide effort. Some portions of America’s old infrastructure are also fundamentally flawed, and would in fact be better off being rebuilt rather than retooled. Still, there is lemonade to be made from the lemons: our old systems and infrastructure can be resources as much as they are obstacles. Whether it’s turning to clean energy or building bike lanes, the foundations have often already been laid; smart policies can build on those foundations, and save the time, money, and resources we need to complete the transition to a more sustainable future.

Photo credit: Sandy Ridlington