The recurring news cycle of extreme weather events leading to power outages over the past several years has begun to feel like “Groundhog Day.” The story starts with a hurricane, wildfire, heatwave, ice storm, windstorm or other disasters — made more likely and intensified by climate change — leading to widespread outages. Next, the electricity industry and policymakers prioritize comfortable solutions that prop up the status quo. And when the next crisis comes and leads to more blackouts, the outcome is the same and the cycle repeats.
We can’t keep hitting “snooze,” rolling over and pretending that solutions that have worked for a grid conceived in the 1950s are the only choice for the realities of the 2020s and beyond. They are not. Increasingly, we have affordable solutions that leverage 21st-century technology to meet 21st-century threats.
At the time of writing this, more than 10,000 people remain without power in Louisiana after a category 4 hurricane ripped through the Gulf Coast more than three weeks ago. Even after the immediate relief efforts have concluded, utilities estimate that full power restoration could take another week or more.
Given the ongoing discussion at the federal and state levels around how to prioritize grid reinvestment, we have a unique opportunity to make this kind of long-lasting, widespread outage far less likely in the future.
There are real structural challenges inherent to a grid developed in the 20th century facing more extreme weather threats every year. But these disasters are also reminders of how far special interests and
After outages in California last August and Texas this February, we saw calls for more gas power plants — the same plants whose failures exposed hundreds of thousands to extreme temperatures. On local news outlets, it is commonplace to hear utility executives extoll the virtues of “hardening” the grid, including undergrounding large swaths of power lines, after major outages.
These solutions are rooted in the legacy of a power grid conceived more than 100 years ago and characterized by large, centralized fossil fuel power plants that transmit power
Instead of simply reconstructing 20th-century grids based on old technology, we can leapfrog ahead with 21st century systems. Distributed energy — including local solar photovoltaics (PV) and battery storage — and grid segmentation create more resilient power systems and can provide reliable power supplies to critical facilities during disasters.
Cost declines for both solar PV and battery storage have allowed distributed, renewable-based microgrids to be cost-competitive with centralized, fossil fuel-based grids. We also
This is not to say these are the only solutions, or that one solution will fit all circumstances. Undergrounding overhead transmission and distribution lines will be necessary for some segments of the grid. But this is an extremely costly endeavor — ranging from four to 14 times the cost of simply replacing them.
As Congress considers a multi-trillion-dollar budget this fall with a significant focus on electricity system investment, we are at a decision point in how we reinvest. There is a clear choice between reinforcing the structural vulnerabilities of a 20th-century grid versus rising to the challenge of investment in a truly modern, more resilient system.
The investment imagined by the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the Clean Electricity Performance Plan can be well-aligned with resilience goals if policymakers prioritize today’s cutting-
The golden age of the 20th-century
Mark Dyson is a senior principal with RMI, where he leads work focused on electric grid planning and operations with U.S. and global partners.
Justin Locke is a managing director responsible for RMI's Global South programs.