A 21st century economy needs a 21st century grid

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As the millions of Texans who were plunged into darkness experienced, our current grid infrastructure doesn’t cut it, and the increased intensity and frequency of these extreme climate change-induced weather events are only going to exacerbate the problem.

On Feb. 15, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s electric grid, announced that a significant 30 gigawatts (GW) of electricity were offline because of icy conditions. Despite the rhetoric being pushed by some fossil fuel proponents, data from ERCOT documents that considerably more gigawatts of fossil fuel and nuclear sources were lost than renewables. ERCOT’s Senior Director of Systems Operations called offline wind energy “the least significant factor” in the blackouts, with frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and nuclear facilities playing a more important role, along with reduced supplies of natural gas. 

The key question is how generation sources performed against the forecasts relied upon by grid operators, and here the difference is even more stark. While wind power outperformed forecasts across the state, nearly twice the amount of natural gas went offline than was predicted under ERCOT’s “extreme generator outage” scenario.

The challenges we saw weren’t limited to Texas; they also impacted the Plains regional grid, SPP, and the Midwestern regional grid, MISO. The cause is not the energy transition but an outdated grid infrastructure that’s incapable of handling increasingly common extreme weather events.

America needs a grid that is flexible, efficient and emissions-free, one that can easily move electric power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed.

Through a Macro Grid, which would stitch together the major regions of the nation’s power system via high voltage interregional transmission, we’d be better able to handle local disruptions or periods of intense electricity demand. A Macro Grid is also imperative to meeting our climate targets and remaining competitive with other countries now investing in their own 21st century grids, including China, Europe and much of the developed world. On top of it all, these grid investments will lower consumer electric bills and more than pay for themselves.

A new analysis by the Bill Gates group Breakthrough Energy reinforces this point, deeming high-voltage transmission infrastructure ‘critical’ to ensuring that grid operators can provide reliable service while reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.

As an example of what’s feasible, over 5 million homes in MISO saw their lights stay on during the height of the outages as a result of 7 GW of electricity shared from the Mid-Atlantic regional grid operator PJM. This was made possible by some of the very limited interregional transmission currently available in the U.S.  

Increased transmission development at the “seams” between regions could save consumers up to $47 billion annually and return more than $2.50 for every dollar invested. Expanding and upgrading our grid would also create jobs during this critical time for our economy. An analysis from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid found that investing in transmission infrastructure in the eastern half of the U.S. alone would create 6 million new American jobs, while saving a typical electricity consumer more than $300 a year. 

So how do we get there? For starters, Congress needs to pass an ambitious infrastructure initiative to make our grid more reliable. Major investment in interregional electric transmission is as central to our prosperity as our roads and water systems.

We can’t afford to have these blackouts become our new normal.

With an advanced grid that’s capable of truly harnessing America’s abundant renewable resources, we can meet our climate objectives, heal the economy, and avoid dangerous, widespread power outages.

Gregory Wetstone is President and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, a national nonprofit that unites finance, policy and technology to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy economy.

Tags Electric power Electric power distribution Electric power transmission Electric power transmission systems Electric Reliability Council of Texas electrical grid Macro grid Renewable energy Texas Wind power

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