Updated: Sep 7
This is part three of a series on climate change and the electric power industry.
In its current configuration, the electric power grid will not be able to withstand increasingly severe storms related to climate change without factoring in frequent, costly repairs. A more cost-effective approach would be to update the grid proactively so that it can withstand extreme storms and prepare for future needs, such as increased electricity demand and expanded renewable energy resources.
In this post, we’ll explore how aged electric power grid infrastructure has created an outage-prone grid when severe weather hits. We’ll also look at some potential solutions that will increase grid resilience and reliability, including developing additional minigrids and microgrids, and integrating other new technology.
In the next part of this series, we’ll take a closer look at outdated electric utility practices and potential solutions from the perspective of an electrical engineer with decades of experience.
For now, let’s explore why the power grid struggles and a few solutions to build grid resilience as climate change increases the frequency of severe weather.
Why the Power Grid Struggles
Grid infrastructure is aged, often by over 50 years. When it was implemented, grid infrastructure was not designed to withstand the extreme storms and weather patterns caused by climate change. Now grid infrastructure needs replacing or updating throughout much of the U.S., but a total system overhaul is expensive. Many utilities need to update their systems, but lack the impetus to do so. Those that do often pass the expense on to rate payers, who see increasing, sometimes even doubling, electric bills.
The grid’s infrastructure was not designed for the increased demand that it now experiences daily, but it manages. When demand significantly increases, such as during a cold snap or heat wave, the grid can be taxed to its breaking point. Additionally, efficiency drops during extreme temperature changes. Combine lagging efficiency with increased demand, and widespread blackouts are almost inevitable.
While grid improvements are costly, repairing lines after severe weather is also costly. The cost of repairing the grid after damage caused by Hurricane Ida could reach as much as $3 billion. Additional billions of dollars are spent annually to repair and replace power grid infrastructure across the U.S. in the wake of windstorms, ice storms, tornadoes, wildfires, and more.
Minigrids and Microgrids Build Community Resilience
Prior to the 1960s, many electric energy providers constructed small minigrid power production facilities. Minigrids produced 50 to 100 megawatts of power to serve industries based in small cities and townships. Most of these minigrids were retired when large, centralized power production facilities, which often burned fossil fuels to produce electricity, were built to serve larger areas.
Like minigrids of the past, microgrids are gaining in popularity today. Microgrids produce two to ten megawatts of power, enough to supply electricity to one small neighborhood or one large office building.
By creating more minigrids and microgrids that are powered by small scale, renewable energy sources and supplemented by energy storage facilities, communities can increase their resilience to severe weather or energy shortages. Often, minigrids and microgrids can continue to produce electricity independently of the electric power grid when in “island” mode. This means that even if severe weather causes widespread power outages, communities that rely on minigrids and microgrids can continue to have electricity.
Minigrids and microgrids can also work with the electric power grid when in grid-connected mode. Small scale renewable energy that is part of the mini or microgrid can be shared with the grid to reduce energy shortages during peak loads, such as during heat waves or cold snaps.
New Technologies Support Grid Reliability
To improve grid reliability and resilience, a key enhancement would be to replace overhead transmission and distribution lines with underground lines. Underground infrastructure is better able to withstand severe weather than multiple overhead lines, especially those on the same or adjacent right of ways. Underground lines are waterproof, will not create wildfire ignition hazards like overhead lines, and will be more secure from sabotage.
A related issue is wide area impacts created by short circuits. When a short circuit occurs on a transmission line, there is a short duration mismatch in energy production and energy consumption. To address this issue, new technologies such as Prescient’s Solenoid Series Reactors should be implemented. Prescient’s patented SSRx reduce voltage recovery time to 8 milliseconds, restoring grid voltage before a major outage can occur.
In prior posts we’ve discussed the importance of new electric warehouses, electric powerways and electric serviceways, and other innovative technologies that will improve the grid’s ability to smoothly integrate renewable energy sources. These new technologies will also help build resilience and reliability by eliminating stressors that challenge electric grid operability.
Though these updates may be costly, the cost of repairing the grid after each extreme weather event quickly adds up. The money dedicated to repairing the grid would be better spent proactively updating the grid so that it is prepared for severe weather, rather than reactively repairing outdated equipment.
Prioritize Power Grid Updates Now
It’s clear that the electric power grid cannot withstand extreme storms like Hurricane Ida or the Texas winter storm. Severe weather events like these will only increase as climate change continues. Much of the technology needed to update the grid to withstand such events is already available.
The time to prioritize updates to the electric power grid is now. The future holds longer heat waves, more frequent and severe hurricanes, and variable winter weather. Grid infrastructure must be updated to withstand extreme weather so that widespread outages can be minimized, or recovery times shortened, after a storm hits.
In our next post, we’ll explore grid resilience in the face of climate-change related severe weather from the perspective of a seasoned electrical engineer. To learn more about Prescient’s recommended updates to improve grid resilience and reliability, check out our next generation blog collection or our other posts, including:
Contact us to learn more about Prescient’s recommended updates for the electric power grid, or for further discussion on climate change and the electric power grid.