There’s more to a greener grid than turbines and transmission wires
As President Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan winds its way through Congress, many are hoping that the billions of dollars targeted at modernizing the nation’s electricity infrastructure will prevent another Texas-style electrical grid failure. While the $100 billion infrastructure investment is a welcome relief for energy experts who have been tearing their hair out for decades calling for investment in our grid, we need to do more than update our transmission wires if we are to truly modernize our electricity infrastructure. We need to rethink our whole approach.
When the Texas power grid went down in February, leaving millions of residents without power for weeks, it was a perfect storm of contributing factors — but it wasn’t just a failure of infrastructure, it was a failure of infrastructure planning. With climate change, storms, and severe weather events occurring more and more frequently, planning becomes increasingly critical. While we can’t predict each disaster exactly, we can and should plan for disasters to happen.
Biden’s long-overdue infrastructure proposal goes a long way toward updating our current electrical system, but in order for it to be economically and environmentally sustainable and reliable enough to power our lives, we need to rethink our relationship with the grid. In the wake of the Texas grid failure, some experts proposed stronger interconnection — more high-voltage capacity power lines — between Texas and the Eastern Interconnection, and in response, the president’s infrastructure plan creates the financing tools needed to incentivize the buildout of high-voltage capacity power lines. But it is doubtful that Eastern Interconnection would have had enough electricity generation reserves available to save the Texas system, even with the power lines to carry the electricity.
Installing additional high-capacity lines is expensive and takes time to clear administrative and legal hurdles. Simply adding more and more high-capacity lines to move energy around is like building more and more interstate highways to solve transportation woes. At some point, you need to re-think how and why people move around the way they do.
Along with tax credits for clean energy generation and storage, Biden’s infrastructure plan thankfully establishes a clean electricity standard aimed at cutting electricity pollution by providing incentives for efficient use of existing forms of energy that are not always counted in state renewable portfolio standards, such as nuclear, hydropower and biomass.
So, what’s missing from the infrastructure plan? More transmission lines and more green energy, while needed, doesn’t address the way the grid operates — and most importantly, the way the generation and distribution of electricity is managed at a fundamental level.
The fundamental problem is that we have the same approach to the electricity system as we did in the 1960s, and the world and how we power it has changed dramatically over the last 60 years.
We need to move from this approach of traditional siloed operating models to integrated and dynamic optimization of our power grid. The capacity to shift the energy load to where it’s needed at any given moment, known in the industry as “dynamic optimization,” is crucial to coping with Texas-style weather events that will be all the more common with climate change. If we don’t plan for this optimization, we’ll also pay increasing costs in building transmission lines to transport the electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s used.
What we need is a grid of grids. At Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech), for more than 10 years, we’ve had our own microgrid that integrates a high-reliability distribution system, smart metering and renewable energy sources to boost overall efficiency, demand response and resiliency. One of the first functioning microgrids in the nation, the Illinois Tech microgrid incorporates solar panels, wind turbines, LED street lights and charging stations for electric vehicles. If necessary, the Illinois Tech system can disconnect from the broader power grid, making the campus self-sufficient during emergencies such as severe weather events or even cyberattack.
Thanks to a variety of efficiencies created by the microgrid, the university has saved over $10 million to date, including an average of $200,000 a year in energy savings and on-campus renewable energy generation, as well as savings from reduced outages, damage, lost productivity and avoiding other costly power infrastructure improvements that are no longer needed with the microgrid.
Migrating progressively to distributed power systems and microgrids like the Illinois Tech microgrid allows local loads at hospitals, airports, universities and residential zones to be managed properly and in extreme circumstances, power can be diverted to where it’s needed most. Microgrids can be isolated and local lights can be turned on quickly inside the microgrid using local resources like generators, renewables, and batteries while the rest of the grid outside the microgrid is off.
We still need a strong transmission grid as a backbone of our power system, and President Biden’s infrastructure push is a massive step in the right direction. But as we look into holistically enhancing the electricity infrastructure in the United States, we should bear in mind that it would be much easier, more sustainable, and ultimately more economical, to plan for a safe grid of grids, before the next foreseeable disaster appears on the horizon.
Ensuring that the industry navigates this transition successfully is the critical component to avoid the worst impacts of climate change while enhancing our grid reliability, security and sustainability.
With a grid of grids, we can have a sustainable decarbonization plan blended into the economy while maintaining reliable, affordable, secure, and resilient electric power for all.
Mohammad Shahidehpour, Ph.D., is a University Distinguished Bodine Chair professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation and associate director of the Wanger Institute for Sustainable Energy Research (WISER) at Illinois Tech. Dr. Shahidehpour has been the principal investigator of $60 million grants and contracts on power system operation and control, smart grid research and development, and large-scale integration of renewable energy.