The year 2021 has already outpaced 2020 in terms of extreme weather events. On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ida left more than 1 million residents without power for days and led to historic rain in New York City. In February, Texas was hit with a historic -2 degree (F) cold snap that left 4.4 million people without power, caused enormous strain on the power grid, and froze pipelines. At least 217 people were killed directly or indirectly by severe cold, and the damages are estimated to be about $21 billion. This year, California faces the triple threat of wildfire season, severe drought, and lowered hydropower output. So far, more than 1 million acres have burned in 10 major fires, 2 million Californians have experienced power outages, and there is a growing threat of rolling blackouts.
Steps for Resolution
I teach the first course in the USA on renewable energy and critical infrastructure at The George Washington University, and the questions I hear most often are, “What threats to the grid demand the most attention?” and “What solutions should we prioritize to address these threats?”
In addition to threats from extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, the grid also faces threats from terrorism, insufficient cybersecurity, aging infrastructure, geological events, and damage from human error/animal interference. It is of paramount importance to understand that there is no simple solution that will address all these threats; instead, a multipath response is required. The most important steps we can take to prepare for future extreme weather events and other threats include the following:
1) Promoting energy efficiency to significantly reduce electric line congestion and reliance upon peaker plants. Many of our outages are tied to extreme heat or cold, which result in high electricity demand and draw from power plants. These draws, especially during high-heat summers when air conditioning is at the maximum, put excessive strain on the system. The absolute fastest and lowest cost approach to reduce stressors is energy efficiency. According to a new analysis from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory based on data from 34 states, energy efficiency solutions cost about 4.4 cents per kWh, which is significantly lower than the cost of new generation.
2) Modernize and upgrade our electric grid, which focuses on transmission lines, distribution lines, substations, and transformers. Modern material science has provided us with new materials that can conduct electricity across long distances more efficiently. Replacing aging lines and replacing downed lines with new, modern power lines can greatly increase reliability and resiliency. These upgrades can be further enhanced with the addition of smart sensors and controls that allow utilities to know of outages, overheating equipment, and extreme changes in demand as they occur. Additionally, adding “sectionalizers” and “reclosers” allow a “smart” electric grid to isolate a section that is becoming unstable and seamlessly reintegrate when improved.
3) Distributed generation and storage & utilization of microgrids. On-site electricity and thermal generation at buildings, campuses, and industrial sites reduce the need for the grid to transport electricity. The market for this technology is booming. Grand View Research in August 2020 reported that “the global distributed energy generation market was valued at USD 242.6 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.5% from 2020 to 2027.” A June 2020 report by Wood Mackenzie describes the emerging U.S. markets for distributed solar, batteries, flexible loads, and electric vehicles as “grid assets” driving the $110 billion U.S. distributed energy resources market through 2025.
4). Infrastructure support and line voltage augmentation. When power outages happen, especially over days, the harshest result is the loss of public infrastructure: pipeline pumps (water, sewage, fuels), hospitals, data centers, etc. While most modern infrastructure in the U.S. is powered by the electric grid, this infrastructure traditionally, and in emergency situations, relies on on-site diesel engine gen-sets, which require refueling and on-site repair. During this year’s extreme events in Texas and Louisiana, the extent of the damage and length of outages lead to difficulty refueling and repairing these diesel fuel tanks, further endangering thousands. These diesel generators, also used for long-distance voltage augmentation, routinely experience the same issues during the coldest and hottest months of the year. Replacing these traditional technologies with hybrid renewable battery systems and microgrids, which need no refueling, would do much to support the resiliency and reliability of existing infrastructure.
The Bottom Line
As an industrialized nation, we can no longer rely primarily on the electric grid for publicly utilized infrastructure. Extreme weather events are only going to be more severe. We need to re-envision our infrastructure as a hybrid system of “on-site” renewables with energy storage. Many of these systems installed during Hurricane Katrina are still working today.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation bill now in play in Congress can specifically address all the issues above, but we will still need solutions at the state and local levels, in the private sector, and in the investment community to drive this change. These solutions can, in fact, be cost-effective. For example, the modern finance and tax tools commonly used today—master limited partnerships, power purchase agreements leasing, and energy service performance contracts—can garner private capital for a huge part of the transition.
The time is now. Waiting a few years will result in larger and longer outages, more loss of economic growth, and loss of property and life.
Scott Sklar is President for 21 years of The Stella Group, Ltd. a strategic technology optimization owner’s rep global firm with a focus on system standardization, modularity, and web-enabled diagnostics. Scott Sklar is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching three unique interdisciplinary sustainable energy courses, and is the Sustainable Energy Director at GWU’s Environment and Energy Management Institute (EEMI).