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Modernizing the North American Power Grid: The Changing Landscape (Part 1)

Updated: Feb 14


Photo by Lukas Bato on Unsplash


The North American Power Grid is aging, physically and technologically, and could very well become the limiting factor in the clean energy transition. With increasing emergent power generation technologies at our fingertips, and significant shifts and increases in electricity demands at our doorstep, our current day model for power generation, transmission and distribution is increasingly being challenged.


As the need for grid reliability and adaptability progressively comes into focus, the current model looks increasingly outdated and the need for modernization has become urgently apparent. Although progress is being made, the challenges being faced remain largely unresolved. 

This article marks the beginning of a three-part series that will provide an overview of the mounting challenges facing North America’s electric grid infrastructure; the current and upcoming policy reforms aiming to address these challenges; ways in which electric service providers can prepare, plan, and advocate for the grid of the future.


Current State of The North American Electrical Power Grid

Up until the 21st century, the North American bulk power supply system (BPS), colloquially known as the “electric grid”, has been operating almost solely on a centralized power supply model. In this model, large scale plants such as nuclear, coal, and natural gas serve as centralized electrical power sources transmitting electricity locally and over long distances, each serving a large customer base over a large geographical area.  This model has been left in place, as over the past century, it has proven to be effective, affordable, and highly reliable. 


Contemporarily, this centralized model is facing numerous challenges brough on by an aging infrastructure, and compounded by demands brought on by emergent generation technology interconnections as well as forecasted increases and shifts in consumer demands.  This convergence of factors is already placing strain on a system that emerged early in the 20th century.


To meet the present challenges, along with those fast approaching from the horizon, will require a vast array of stakeholders, in tandem with governmental agencies, to re-think the current bulk power supply model and planning processes and will require a tremendous nation-wide modernization effort to realize. 

The Changing Landscape of Our Electrical Power Needs

At the core of this dilemma is the need for a reliable and resilient supply of electricity, essential requirements that are being challenged by both foundational and emergent factors, such as: 


  • Aging infrastructure in need of significant upgrades and maintenance such as transmission lines, approximately 70 percent of which are over 25 years old and approaching the end of their typical 50 to 80-year lifespan. 


  • The steep rise in distributed energy generation resources (DERs) such as solar and wind, which produce power locally and on a smaller scale.  The power they produce is often intermittent, and of differing qualities when compared to that of traditional large-scale power plants, which makes integrating these resources into the traditional grid model significantly complex. Additionally, these resources can be remote, requiring new transmission to be built in order to connect them to the grid. 

  • The shift in future energy demands triggered primarily by the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Off-hour demand will increase concurrently with the number of personal electric vehicles which are typically charged during the evening and early morning hours.  This shift in demand will have a range of effects, most notably a potentially significant decrease in transformer lifespans due to their inability to moderate their oil coolant temperatures, which is usually accomplished during off peak hours.

  • Material shortages such as Grain-Oriented Electrical Steel used in the manufacture of electrical transmission and distribution equipment which is only produced at one location in the United States. 


All in, it is estimated that 57% increase in transmission capacity will be needed by 2035, equating to 47,300 GW-miles of new transmission. 

Photo by Evnex Ltd on Unsplash


Progress in Addressing New Electric Power Needs

The majority of the planning and work remains, but progress has been made, and substantial goals have been established within the Department of Energy and FERC. Some of which include:

  • Increasing reliability through enhancements such as new strategic interregional grid interconnections and localized power generation capacity.


  • Developing cost-effective energy storage solutions to balance supply and demand, especially those to be used in conjunction with intermittent renewables.

  • Increasing data transparency and establishing new grid management strategies to accommodate the rise of distributed energy resources and microgrids, as well as to provide overall increased efficiency and market competition.

  • Enhancing supply chains and developing the skilled workforce needed to meet forecasted demands; preparing for the knowledge transfer that will be needed as a large portion of the experienced workforce approaches retirement.

  • Continuing to advance, develop, and deploy smart grid technologies, including metering infrastructure and demand response programs that have been instrumental in making strides toward modernizing and increasing efficiency thus far.

  • Increasing cybersecurity capabilities.

  • Creating a set of industry standards to serve as a common language throughout the many siloed regions.


In order to effectively meet present and future challenges in modernizing the electric grid, all stakeholders in the industry must work in concert towards a single set of established goals.

Proposed and recently enacted federal policy has been passed to address long interconnection queues and improve the associated application processes. These will be followed by long-term planning efforts for the overall grid. With these processes in place, a modern electric grid will become more feasible.


In the next post in this series, we'll dive deeper into solving the interconnection crisis. [Read Part 2 of this series here.]


 

This post was written by Evan Heryet, Program Manager at THAMPICO LLC, a consulting firm that provides program and project management support for utilities and cooperatives. We help our clients align people, process, and technology to produce optimal outcomes for energy project development. Our goal is to help our clients deliver more reliable, affordable, and clean energy, which is what the world wants and needs.

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