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How to create a more resilient power grid to avoid blackouts

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A recent report finds that the U.S. power grid is well prepared to maintain reliable electric service during “normal” conditions. The problem is, extreme weather fueled by escalating climate change has become the new normal, and the resulting power outages will put more lives and livelihoods at risk. Last year, a winter storm in Texas left millions without power for days; a few months later in the Pacific Northwest, a “heat dome” made millions more swelter in homes that had never before required air conditioning. Officials in California are already preparing for a possible energy shortfall this summer as wildfires and drought continue to strain the power grid.

America needs to upgrade its power grid, both to reduce the risk of outages and to ease the transition from polluting fossil-fired power plants to renewables and other clean electricity sources. Key to improving grid reliability while cutting emissions is to update our high-voltage transmission infrastructure.

The U.S. grid includes low-voltage distribution wires that send power to consumers, and high-voltage transmission lines that move electricity over longer distances. While the United States has hundreds of thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines, the system was not designed to meet current needs.  

Expanding transmission will improve system reliability by making it possible to tap alternatives if extreme weather knocks out any given line or power plant. An increasingly cost competitive solution is to put power lines underground, making them less vulnerable to damage from ice storms, high winds or wildfires. For example, Pacific Gas and Electric is planning to invest $15 billion to 20 billion to bury 10,000 miles of power distribution lines to reduce wildfire risks in California. Because it’s impossible to completely eliminate outages, helping communities better allocate scarce resources to protect their most vulnerable residents (such as those who need uninterrupted electricity to power medical devices) must also be part of any plan.

Expanding and modernizing our high-voltage transmission network to connect renewables to the grid and carry power to where it is needed is key to cut emissions from power plants as well as from our cars and homes through electrification. A well-planned network will reduce costs for consumers because utilities will be able to deploy the least-cost generators — often wind and solar — particularly if there is an open and transparent market for generation. This inexpensive source of electricity for charging electric vehicles can also save customers money at the gas pump. Transmission lines have already helped expand wind capacity in the Midwest, the Great Plains and Texas.

In addition, sharing resources over a larger transmission network smooths out variability in wind and solar generation, helping to bring more renewables online reliably while minimizing the need for ramping fossil plant output. Transmission and other solutions that improve the flexibility of the grid, such as energy storage and demand-side resources, are thus key to ensuring a cost-effective clean energy transition.

The catch is that transmission infrastructure is notoriously challenging to plan, site and build. Planning is the first step, as well as engaging stakeholders and identifying potential siting risks early is critical to success in reaching agreement on who benefits from projects as well as earning siting approval. For utility-owned transmission, the costs are fully recovered from electricity customers benefiting from the projects, but agreeing on who benefits from particular projects and thus should pay for them can create an impasse.

To address this issue and direct funding toward resilience and newer technologies, last year Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), often referred to as the bipartisan infrastructure law. This law is a massive investment in America’s energy infrastructure. IIJA provides more than $10 billion in grants for states, tribal nations and utilities to enhance grid resilience and reduce outages from extreme weather, wildfires and other natural disasters. It also provides $2.5 billion for a Transmission Facilitation Program and funding for advanced transmission technologies that can help optimize use of existing infrastructure. How these programs will be implemented is currently before the Department of Energy (DOE), which is collecting input from stakeholders, including states and tribal nations, and working to quickly deploy funding.

Congress could provide additional funding for the grid and transmission through tax credits, loans and grants in a budget reconciliation package.

Funding is critical, but it’s not the main challenge. If transmission companies simply rely on federal dollars without engaging landowners in discussions around where and how infrastructure is installed, they will not resolve project permitting and siting issues, which can be significant challenges. How transmission is planned, sited and built will determine whether it saves customers money, reduces emissions, or presents environmental justice or energy equity concerns.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has jurisdiction over certain aspects of transmission and is currently considering an important proposed rule that will require regional transmission planners to identify how transmission needs will change based on shifts in the resource mix and demand (e.g., electrification). It would require the development of long-term scenarios, including accounting for high-impact, low-frequency events, such as extreme weather. Long-term planning is important because it typically takes longer to build transmission than generation, so it’s necessary to anticipate where the generation we would want to build for the future is going to be in relation to electricity demand.

FERC’s proposal goes a long way, but additional reforms are necessary to build a grid that can fully facilitate our nation’s goals, and to serve customers more cost-effectively and reliably given trends in the resource mix and changing climate.

In short, well-planned, more robust transmission serves all Americans. Congress, the administration, DOE, FERC, states and tribal governments must work together to establish effective procedures and invest the resources needed to build the right lines, in the right places, in time to ensure that we deliver reliable, affordable and clean electricity to power our homes, vehicles and businesses.

Dan Lashof is the director of World Resources Institute, United States. Follow him on Twitter: @DLashof

Jennie Chen is the senior manager, clean energy at World Resources Institute, United States. Follow her on Twitter: @jenniechenergy

Tags Blackout Climate change extreme weather Power grid

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