Modernizing the North American Power Grid: The Changing Landscape
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, 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As the need for grid reliability and adaptability progressively comes into focus, the current model looks increasingly outdated and the need for modernization has become urgently apparent.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, over the past century, as it has proven to be effective, affordable, and highly reliable.
Contemporarily, this centralized model is facing numerous challenges brought on by an aging infrastructure, and compounded by demands brought on by emergent generation technology interconnection as well as forecasted increases and shifts in consumer demands. Without mitigating action, each of these factors alone will soon begin to strain the bulk power supply system, and their convergence will lead to much more significant impacts.
To meet the present challenges, along with those fast approaching on the horizon, a vast array of stakeholders, in tandem with governmental agencies, will need to re-think the current bulk power supply model and planning processes. This undertaking will necessitate a tremendous nationwide modernization effort to be realized.
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, qualities which are both coming ever-increasingly into question within the traditional model. These essential requirements are being challenged by both foundational and emergent factors which include:
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.
Steep rise in distributed energy generation resources (DERs) such as renewable energy sources, which can generate 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 at a larger scale, can be remote, requiring new transmission to be built in order to connect to the grid.
Shift in future energy demands, triggered primarily by the widespread adoption of electric vehicles, will significantly increase the overall demand for electricity. Additionally, off-hour demand will increase concurrently along 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, being a potentially significant decrease in transformer lifespans due to their inability to moderate their oil coolant temperatures, which is traditionally accomplished during off-peak hours.
Decreased resilience as weather events increase in intensity and severity.
Material shortages such as Grain-Oriented Electrical Steel used in the manufacture of electrical transmission and distribution equipment, which is currently only produced at one location in the United States.
Progress in Addressing New Electric Power Needs
The vast 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:
Updating the review and approval processes for generation project interconnections to reduce uncertainty, increase transmission upgrade cost allocation equity among rate payers, and conduct studies on proposed projects more accurately and efficiently.
Overhaul the grid planning process at a national level to allow for a strategic and coordinated approach to grid modernization.
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 the development and deployment of 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 face present and future challenges in modernizing the electric grid, the entire industry and its oversight would be best positioned to work in concert towards a single set of established goals shored up by foundational reform.
With agile approval and cohesive long-term planning processes in place, efforts will start to become feasible to make strides to effectively modernize the grid. Increasingly, reform and investments have started to take shape through proposed and enacted federal policy.
The large, nationwide wave of proposed non-centralized power generation projects is currently pushing the limits of what traditional grid planning is able to accomplish. Of the cracks that are beginning to show, the first major area that federal policy is aiming to tackle is the backlog in interconnection applications.
In the next post in this series, we'll dive deeper into solving the interconnection crisis.
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.