A reliable electric grid keeps on the lights — and our digital economy

A reliable electric grid keeps on the lights — and our digital economy
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Delivery of electricity is an essential service that no one really thinks about until the lights don’t go on or (more importantly) our mobile device don’t work. The increasingly impactful weather patterns from this past hurricane and winter seasons are great reminders of this.

It can be argued that the electric system is just as important to the digital and traditional aspects of our economy as roads and bridges are to physical commerce. On a daily basis, business and consumer discussions focus on new technologies and services that are becoming more solely dependent on a digital economy. This underscores that the reliability of our electric system is paramount. The challenge is to make sure the focus on the grid’s resilience doesn’t wane when threats subside.

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The electric system is comprised of generation, transmission and distribution. Without transmission, generation cannot be delivered to customers. Consequently, the transmission system presents not only the most immediate resilience challenge, but also the greatest opportunity to strengthen our electric system and economy in response to a wide range of threats. Transmission is important for resilience and improving transmission will make the most impact on enhancing resilience for customers.

 

It takes time to plan so it’s critical we maintain a sense of urgency when it comes to creating a planning environment to build more resilience into the transmission grid. In fact, a recent LEI study underscores how proactive planning can bring more than $63 million in benefits to customers — this doesn’t even include the benefits that a more resilient grid could provide by avoiding costs associated with prolonged outages. 

Historically, transmission planning has focused on electric reliability, or the ability of the electric system to withstand a sudden disturbance and still meet demand, and the ability to plan for and keep energy supply and demand in balance in the long term.

Resilience, on the other hand, is the ability to bounce back quickly from large, infrequent catastrophic events. A resilient power grid can withstand or quickly recover from such events, and considers and mitigates key system vulnerabilities. It is the ability to withstand and reduce the magnitude and duration of disruptive events, which includes the capability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to and rapidly recover from an event.

In laymen’s terms: A resilience grid will help to make sure the power comes back more quickly in the midst of a weather or other type of physical or cyber event.

To achieve resilience we need to be proactive in planning the transmission grid.

It’s important for consumers of energy to understand the considerable amount of time it takes to plan the grid infrastructure so that it can be built efficiently and cost-effectively.

WIRES anticipates that, together with reliability issues, the economic benefits of a more integrated system and the ability to deploy and dispatch new technologies are being driven by the need for greater resilience so the transmission grid can provide more continuous delivery of electricity.

To help get us there, WIRES is encouraging The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take measures that encourage such planning and coordination by clarifying that it has authority under the Federal Power Act to include resilience in its transmission planning guidance, and by updating its planning principles to include resilience as a separate and distinct planning driver. 

FERC also should clarify that regional planning responsibilities of Regional Transmission Organizations and Independent System Operators includes planning for resilience. It is our view that this clarification needs to address the prevention or mitigation of loss or disruption of critical transmission infrastructure and its services. 

In short, we must ensure that planning processes exist that will directly address grid resilience, because over the long term, proactive transmission planning is the most effective way to ensure a resilient electric system. 

Grid resilience will only increase in importance as the economy continues to become more dependent on an even higher level of reliable electric power than was seen in the past. At the same time, cyber and physical threats, as well as natural events of unparalleled ferocity and unpredictability pose new challenges to our increasingly electrified economy.

Let’s continue to ensure that the first order of business for public health, safety, and a strong economy is to develop and safeguard we have a resilient electric grid that will support a more intensely electric and economically dynamic future.

Nina Plaushin is president of WIRES, an international non-profit trade association promoting investment in electric transmission. Plaushin is also vice president, Regulatory, Federal Affairs and Communications for ITC Holdings Corp.