THE VIEW FROM 35,000 FEET
The U.S. clean-energy business is booming, but this progress could come to naught without a massive overhaul of our antiquated electric grid.
BY Eric Schwartz
RECENT EXTREME WEATHER EVENTS ARE SLOWLY REVEALING THE WEAKNESSES in the United State’s power infrastructure. Built in the 1970s, the New Orleans power network was destined to fail long before Hurricane Ida pummeled the region with winds of up to 150 mph – much of the network was only engineered to withstand winds up to 95 mph. And most of you probably remember that in 2021 the state of Texas suffered a major power crisis which occurred as three severe winter storms swept across the state, causing the worst energy infrastructure failure in Texas state history, leading to shortages of food, water and heat.
The sharp increase in U.S. outages – between 2015 and 2020 they averaged 9,656 per year – due to the deteriorating performance of our national power grids, coincided with a surge in natural disasters brought on by the change in climate. The U.S. experienced 229 weather events that each caused more than $1 billion in damage between the years 2002-2021 compared to just 94 such events from 1980-2001. As the weather gets wilder, the grid gets older.
The decrepit nature of our power grids is the biggest obstacle to expanding clean energy. President Biden’s administration promises to eliminate or offset carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035, which means that clean-energy growth will add additional pressure to our nation’s grid by sparking a huge surge in power demand for widespread EV adoption, and increased dependence on renewables creates reliability issues on days with less wind and sunshine.
The huge fly in the ointment is that the federal government lacks the authority to create grid expansion and/or modernization because the needed infrastructure investments are controlled by a web of local, state and regional regulators who have incentives to hold down spending. Major grid updates would require these regulators to sign off on rate increases, which will be met with fierce resistance from consumers and local politicians. The only solution is that inter-regional connections will become essential in moving green energy power from far-flung solar and wind facilities to population centers.
The decrepit nature of our power grids is the biggest obstacle to expanding clean energy.
Unfortunately, no one is addressing this problem. No major interregional transmission projects have been built – much less planned – in the past decade. And while there are great examples of success in some regions – wind power is supplying up to 75 percent of the demand for electricity in the 14-state Southwest Power Pool – limited transmission lines bottle up all that clean power due to network congestion.
After decades of innovation and investment the U.S. clean-energy business is booming with soaring EV sales and tremendous growth in solar and wind power. All of this progress, however, could come to naught without a massive overhaul of our outdated and antiquated electric grid infrastructure.
building a better grid intitiative
There does happen to be some movement on this issue, led by the current administration and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). On January 12, 2022, DOE launched the Building a Better Grid Initiative to catalyze the nationwide development of new and upgraded high-capacity electric transmission lines.
A NOTICE OF INTENT WAS PUBLISHED WITH ADDITIONAL DETAILS:
Under the Building a Better Grid Initiative, DOE will identify critical national transmission needs and support the buildout of long-distance, high-voltage transmission facilities that meet those needs through collaborative transmission planning, innovative financing mechanisms, coordinated permitting, and continued transmission-related research and development. DOE commits to robust engagement on energy justice and collaboration, including with states, American Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives, industry, unions, local communities and other stakeholders for successful implementation of the program.
The DOE’s notice of intent includes five major points:
• Engaging and collaborating early with states, tribal nations and stakeholders.
• Enhancing transmission planning to identify areas of greatest need.
• Deploying more than $20 billion in federal financing tools, including through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s new $2.5 billion Transmission Facilitation Program, $3 billion expansion of the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, and more than $10 billion in grants for states, Tribes and utilities to enhance grid resilience and prevent power outages. It also taps into existing tools, including the more than $3 billion Western Area Power Administration Transmission Infrastructure Program, and a number of loan guarantee programs through the Loan Programs Office.
• Facilitating an efficient transmission permitting process by coordinating with federal agencies to streamline permitting, using public private partnerships, and designating corridors.
• Performing transmission-related research and development.
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said, “The foundation of our climate and clean energy goals is a safe, reliable and resilient electric grid that is planned hand-in-hand with community partners and industry stakeholders. DOE’s new Building a Better Grid initiative is a job booster spurred by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and collaboration with communities to upgrade the nation’s grid, connect more Americans to clean electricity and broadband, and reliably move clean energy to where it’s needed most.”
Stand-alone systems are small electricity systems — which are not connected to a central electricity distribution system — and provide electricity to individual appliances, homes or small productive uses such as a small businesses. They thus serve the needs of individual customers, while utilizing local¬ly available renewable resources.
Stand-alone off-grid systems that can be powered by biomass, wind, hydro and solar power are becoming more and more common. To extend the time of use, energy storage systems have become more popular, and as prices keep dropping these solutions will gain wide acceptance. Storage is typically implemented as a battery bank. Power drawn directly from the battery is often low voltage (DC) and this is used especially for lighting as well as for DC appliances. An inverter is used to generate AC low voltage which powers standard appliances.
Stand-alone off-grid systems that can be powered by biomass, wind, hydro and solar power are becoming more and more common. To extend the time of use, energy storage systems have become more popular.
off or on grid
With the stakes set against any major national overhaul of our antiquated electrical grid systems due mainly to politics, regional and local energy grid alternatives will continue to escalate as more and more renewable energy solutions present opportunities to harvest the power and use it on demand. At the neighborhood level we will be seeing communities coming together to share natural resources and communally invest in energy storage solutions. That is the most likely scenario as we move to an all-electric, non-fossil fuel future.