It has become second nature. You hear that bad weather is coming and rush to the store to stock up on bottled water, canned and other non-perishable foods. You check your flashlight batteries.
For a few days, we are all survivalists. Why? Because we are resigned to the idea that bad weather equates with a loss of electrical power.
What happens is the fortunate have emergency generators hooked up to their freestanding houses. The rest of us just hope for the best, but with real fear of days without heat.
It happened most severely in Texas in February 2021; during Winter Storm Uri, which lasted five days, 250 people died. Recently, during the Blizzard of 2022, 100,000 people in Massachusetts endured bitter cold nights when the electricity failed. There were more power failures in the most recent ice storm.
There are 3,000 electric utilities in the United States. Sixty large ones, like Consolidated Edison, NextEra Energy, Pacific Gas and Electric, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, supply 70 percent of the nation’s electricity. Nonetheless, the rest are critical in their communities.
All utilities, large and small, have much in common: They are all under pressure to replace coal and natural gas generation with renewables, which means solar and wind. No new, big hydro is planned, and nuclear is losing market share as plants go out of service because they are too expensive to operate.
The word the utilities like to use is resilience. It means they will do their best to keep the lights on and to restore power as fast as possible if they fail due to bad weather. When those events threaten, the utilities spring into action, dispatching crews to each other’s trouble spots as though they were ordering up the cavalry. The utilities have become very proactive, but if storms are severe, it often isn’t enough.
Now, besides more frequent severe weather events, utilities are facing the possibility of destabilization on another front, due to switching to renewables before new storage and battery technology is available or deployed.
The first step to avoid new instability — and it is a critical one — is to add transmission. This would move electricity from where it is generated in wind corridors and sun-drenched states to where the demand is, often in a different time zone.
Duane Highley, president and CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which serves four states in the West from its base in Westminster, Colorado, says new west-east and east-west transmission is critical to take the power from the resource-rich Intermountain states to the population centers in the East and to California.
“Most existing transmission lines run north to south. They aren’t getting the renewables to the load centers,” Highley says.
Echoing this theme, Alice Moy-Gonzalez, senior vice president of strategic development at Anterix, a communications company providing broadband private networks that make the grid more secure and efficient, sees pressure on the grid from renewables and from new customer demands (such as electrical vehicles) as electrification spreads throughout society.
“The use of advanced secure communications to monitor all of these resources and coordinate their operation will be key to maintaining reliability and optimization as we modernize the grid,” Moy-Gonzalez says.
Better communications are one step in the way forward, but new lines are at the heart of the solution.
The Biden administration, as part of its infrastructure plan, has singled out the grid for special attention under the rubric “Build a Better Grid.” It has also earmarked $20 billion of already appropriated funds to get the ball rolling.
Industry lobbyists in Washington say they have the outlines of the Department of Energy plan, but details are slow to emerge. Considered particularly critical is the administration’s commitment to ease and coordinate siting obstacles with the states and affected communities.
Utilities are challenged to increase the resilience of the grid they have and to expand it before it becomes more unstable.
Clint Vince, who heads the U.S. energy practice at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, says, “We aren’t going to reach the growth in renewables needed to address climate without exponential growth in major interstate transmission. And sadly, we won’t succeed with that goal on our current trajectory. We will need significant federal intervention because collaboration among the states simply hasn’t been working within the timeframe needed.”
Better keep the flashlights handy.