The electric grid of the future requires major upgrades — we must start today

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Often deemed as the most complex machine of the 20th century, the electric grid is modern society’s life-support system. It provides the necessary functions that enable all critical infrastructures that billions of people in the world depend on. Everything on which daily survival now depends — clean water, refrigeration, medical care, reliable communication, access to cash and banking — requires, to some degree, electricity. The complexity of our energy system should not be oversimplified, and with an eye towards the future, we can’t forget that it needs to be built on the foundation of a functioning and reliable grid today.

The grid itself is a complex system of systems. Having greener methods of electricity generation is only a partial solution if other elements, such as weatherized infrastructure and hardening of core distribution and transmission systems is not part of efforts. The path to resiliency involves a diverse set of resources and solutions at different scales. This bitter lesson was most recently experienced in Texas with the prolonged blackout as a result of freezing temperatures. But it has also been seen in other areas, like California’s rolling blackouts to prevent high winds from sparking wildfires. 

Puerto Rico has unique challenges in rebuilding after the destruction of Hurricane Maria. A lack of adequate maintenance and rehabilitation programs, and a host of longstanding institutional challenges were major contributors to performance problems before and since Maria. The ability to maintain good performance in blue sky days, much less build resilience, into the system was an ongoing challenge prior to Hurricane Maria. In fact, common reliability indices in Puerto Rico, such as the System Average Interruption Frequency Index, revealed a worsening pattern between 2014 and 2017. In addition, Puerto Rico faces the burden of being an island electric system, lacking an interconnection to neighboring electric systems, and rendering supply and load balancing more challenging.  

In the near term, what is needed in Puerto Rico is to repair and remediate the highest risk portions of the system that pose safety and resiliency threats. At the same time, crucial investments in new technology, introducing updated operating processes and putting in place consistent planning and effective management will support the growth of new energy sources in accordance with Puerto Rico’s energy goals. This will bring the Puerto Rican grid to a minimum functioning state, which is essentially the foundation of enabling renewable integration and alternative distributed technologies. 

But resiliency challenges are not unique to Puerto Rico. The impacts of disasters in the U.S. and globally continue to grow. Indeed, if 2020 had not been known for COVID-19, it would be known as another record breaking year for billion-dollar weather disasters. These have ranged from major storms and flooding events to wildfires, among others. The hazards are varied, but the impacts of major disasters are often the same: increased disruption and loss of lives and livelihoods. This is compounded further when the grid goes down. 

Grid modernization efforts show the potential of a range of solutions that will improve resiliency of the system while facilitating the integration of renewable energy. However, translating these into realized solutions requires a coordinated planning approach, across traditionally siloed resource, transmission and distribution planning. Coordinated planning approaches should map vulnerability and hazard assessments, hurricane modeling and overall resiliency planning into investment decisions across systems and communities. For instance, renewable resources need to be paired with battery storage, to provide backup capacity for when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow, as well as grid stability benefits. Existing generation methods including solar panels and wind turbines, and transmission lines need to be expanded and hardened to withstand increasingly extreme weather events. A resilient grid infrastructure is fundamental to disaster recovery, decarbonization goals, climate adaptation and mitigation, and to integrate emerging technologies in the grid. Such proactive and coordinated grid modernization and planning efforts will require deploying the best, sophisticated solutions to address the multiple objectives necessary for a resilient, modern and renewable grid. 

The Biden administration recently put forth an ambitious budget proposal, investing nearly 2 trillion dollars in upgrading our infrastructure and building a new foundation for America’s economy. This includes investments in the grid to build resilience mechanically, but also to better ensure these benefits reach communities disproportionately affected by disasters. These social aspects of resilience are critical investments that will require a new kind of engagement. 

To accomplish this, diverse partners need to be formed across communities, utilities, academia and government institutions. Better modeling for threats like hurricanes can help determine the types of impacts communities and infrastructure can face and support longer term decision making. Modeling can also better illustrate the relative value of renewable energy investments on different parts of a complex system. Articulating the value of resilience to include social benefits also needs to be better priced into investments in resilience. These efforts also need clear objectives and metrics that should speak to the same goal but be flexible to be applied in different settings in different parts of the country and communities.

The visions of the grid of the future is an alluring one. There are many exciting ideas and proofs of concept operational today. But to truly achieve this vision, our strategies need to build a roadmap that starts with the realities of where the grid is today, leans into the complexity of the system and stakeholders needed and works towards a more equitable and resilient grid for all communities.

Shay Bahramirad is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Power & Energy Society vice president of New Initiative and Outreach, vice president of Climate and Resilience at Quanta Technology which provides technical advice to LUMA Energy, LLC., in Puerto Rico, and adjunct professor at Illinois Institute of Technology. Jeff Schlegelmilch is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the author of the book “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press.

Tags Emerging technologies Energy development green energy Resilience Smart grid

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