The US power grid delivers electricity to almost 150 million customers– residential, commercial, and industrial– making it arguably the largest machine ever built. Most of the infrastructure is now aging, and not being repaired or replaced at a rate that can keep up with demand, or with the pressures of climate change. In this blog, we look at how the US power grid can be brought into the 21st century through not just long-overdue upgrades, but massive electrification efforts via clean energy sources.
Climate Vulnerabilities of the Electric Grid
Extreme weather and changing climate conditions will be detrimental to any power grid, whether it is run on clean energy or fossil fuels. The reality of the situation is that most of the current grids were built to withstand a relatively stable, predictable climate. So as the world’s carbon emissions continue to ramp up the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, power grids have become more and more vulnerable to disruption.
Weather-related power disruptions can range from mere inconvenience to utter catastrophe. In our modern society, we rely on electricity for essential services such as medical care, traffic control, heating in the winter, cooling in the summer, and so much more. For a recent example of catastrophic impact, we can look to the state of Texas.
In February 2021, Texas was hit with a severe winter storm, triggering a massive blackout across much of the state. This lack of power left many homes without the necessary heating to overcome cold conditions, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people. Had the power plants been properly weatherized, many of these deaths could have been prevented.
Puerto Rico is another recent example. When Hurricane Fiona hit the island in September of 2022, Puerto Ricans were left in a blackout for several days, also without access to clean drinking water. At least 25 people died in Fiona’s wake. The island was still reeling from the death and destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria just five years earlier. That blackout lasted for 11 months, and an estimated 3,000 people died.
Modernizing our grid is truly a matter of life or death.
How to Modernize the US Power Grid
By modernizing the grid, we will limit its vulnerability to extreme weather events as the climate changes, and drastically reduce the emissions that are causing climate change in the first place. In order to do that, we must rapidly swap out high-emissions sources (i.e. coal, oil, and gas) for sources that have low-to-no emissions (e.g. solar, wind, nuclear, etc.).
This transition is already underway, but it’s not happening fast enough. Based on 2022 figures, 18 percent of US electricity comes from nuclear and about 22 percent from other clean sources, such as wind and solar, all of which are emissions-free. Fossil fuels still make up about 60 percent of the United States’ power generation, emitting over 1.5 billion metric tons of CO2 per year– more than double the annual CO2 emissions of Europe’s largest emitter, Germany.
In the US, states with more renewables have been less prone to blackouts, and while there are other factors, studies have shown that a transition to clean energy will help solve the blackout problem of the grid, while also significantly reducing carbon emissions. Another way to modernize the grid is to integrate all its fragmented parts, making it more flexible and efficient.
Technically, there is no single grid in the US. It’s actually three separate grids: one in the East, one in the West, and one in the state of Texas– which is partly why Texans suffered so much during the freak winter storm in 2021. Other states around them had power to share, but they struggled to do so without many established grid connections.
Integrating the grid would resolve issues like this. Research has shown that investing in the capacity for power transmission across the largely independent grids in the US would allow more homes and businesses to access power when they need it and also improve the efficiency of renewable energy technologies. For example, the abundance of solar potential in the Southwest on hot summer days could be used to meet demand in the East.
Grid integration has already proven to be beneficial in the United States on many occasions where its integration with power grids in Canada was able to meet a rise in demand. In 2021, power operators in Saskatchewan and Manitoba provided some of their surplus power to Texas and other Southern States to help them cope with blackouts as a result of those extreme weather conditions. The US and Canada have one of the most integrated grid systems in the world, and this benefits both countries in case of emergencies.
In Canada, every province is interconnected; even independent grids like Quebec have connections with other provinces in case of emergencies. This sort of integration must be achieved in the US power grid across states in order to bolster the long-term reliability and resilience of power supply in the US. But grid integration is not the only solution. Thankfully, we have additional ways of better managing and distributing energy. Enter, Smart Grids and microgrids.
“Smart Grid” technologies are two-way communication, control, and processing systems with sensors and meters that allow operators to access data on grid stability, helping them detect problems and adapt automatically by rerouting power around those problem areas. And, because it is a two-way communication system, a Smart Grid also allows consumers to view their energy consumption in real time.
Another important feature of a Smart Grid is expansive battery systems. Energy storage is a vital part of the modern electric grid, especially as we integrate more renewable sources, which tend to produce power intermittently. Batteries serve to improve the grid’s reliability and efficiency– not only by reducing waste but also by acting as a back-up, or redistribution point in the network.
According to the US Department of Energy, the benefits associated with the Smart Grid include:
- More efficient transmission of electricity
- Quicker restoration of electricity after power disturbances
- Reduced operations and management costs for utilities, and ultimately lower power costs for consumers
- Reduced peak demand, which will also help lower electricity rates
- Increased integration of large-scale renewable energy systems
- Better integration of customer-owner power generation systems, including renewable energy systems
- Improved security
Another way we can upgrade our grid is through microgrids– or, more broadly, distributed energy resources (DERs). DERs enable small-scale generation of power remotely, at the place of its consumption. Under this model, consumers produce much of their own energy, according to their specific needs, operating on a micro-grid that redirects its surpluses to a larger common grid.
Distributed energy is a more efficient way of meeting energy demand because it reduces waste, and it also increases adaptability, as consumers are not entirely reliant on a central grid system. And in the event of a power failure, it would have a much smaller range of impact, as opposed to entire states or countries.
An example of successful micro-grid technology can be seen in the community of Castañer, Puerto Rico, whose microgrid kept the community going even while the rest of the island was left in darkness during Hurricane Fiona. Another microgrid was just recently built in Adjuntas, a small community in Puerto Rico, as well.
Integrating Clean And Renewable Energy Sources
As aforementioned, renewable energy sources are vital to the development of a modern electric grid that is resilient to the changing climate. Solar, wind, and nuclear sources should be expanded far beyond their current use.
Nuclear power, even with its limited use, has already reduced CO2 emissions over the past 50 years by about 60 billion tons. That’s almost 40 years worth of the current yearly CO2 emissions generated from the US grid. Nuclear is also pivotal in expanding other clean sources such as wind and solar into the grid. Wind and solar have an intermittency problem– they do not generate power consistently at a high level compared to fossil fuels and nuclear. However, their intermittency can be an advantage as part of a Smart Grid that can alternate between power sources. The integration of solar and wind will significantly reduce our CO2 emissions problem, and its intermittency concerns can be solved with expanded battery infrastructure, and by using nuclear power as a baseload power source.
The Biden administration aims to achieve a net-zero power grid by 2035. The administration has touted its efforts towards expanding the clean energy market by investing in renewables, batteries, electric vehicles, and related infrastructure to support the industry. They have set targets for cutting the amount of carbon emissions produced at power plants. They’ve even invested in the expansion of new nuclear technology called Small Modular Reactors, to deliver clean, reliable power at a fraction of the size and cost. The smaller size of these reactors cuts down on production cost and timelines, and is useful for providing low-carbon power to remote locations.
The investments made by the Biden administration are a step in the right direction, but these plans face vigorous opposition from fossil fuel lobbyists and interest groups. The most stable power grid in the world, according to reports, is in France, largely due to its use of nuclear power. Nuclear accounts for 70 percent of all power generation in France, and hydropower another 10 percent, with the country just shy of reaching 100 percent renewable energy in the near future. France is proof that fossil fuels do not need to be the backbone of the grid, and that nuclear and renewables make for a reliable, modern electric grid.