Energy Central: Investing in the Grid for Reliability & Resiliency
April 11, 2023
Investment in grid modernization is growing every year, and with good reason. Widespread, sustained power outages have become markedly more common, rising from less than a dozen major interruptions in 2000 to over 180 in 2020. Looking ahead, the US is working toward a 100 per cent clean electricity grid by 2035. Meanwhile, 70 per cent of US transmission and distribution assets are approaching the end of their expected 50-year lifespan1. A reliable, resilient grid requires a two-fold, tightly intertwined approach that simultaneously fortifies our infrastructure while we shift our energy mix to renewable sources.
The good news is that the stage is set to upgrade our infrastructure and the energy it needs to activate. The US is dedicating $13 billion to grid modernization projects, while the EIA estimates that solar projects in interconnection queues could double 2021’s installed utility-scale capacity.
Still, significant challenges lay ahead. Threats from severe weather to vandalism have illuminated major weaknesses in grid monitoring operations and the country needs to play catch-up to reinforce infrastructure. But doing it all at once is prohibitively expensive and impractical. The clock is ticking on decarbonization goals, but there isn’t enough infrastructure to bring clean energy online at an acceptable pace.
So how can the US progress toward their clean energy goals while ensuring the grid is up to the task? Technology is an increasingly critical partner to the entire electrical utility ecosystem in two key ways:
Maximizing grid-wide visibility improves resilience with faster risk identification and data-driven prioritization
The headlines are full of reasons exploring why intermittent field visits and paper processes are inadequate methods for monitoring grid health on a standalone basis, with the sheer vastness of the grid rendering it impossible to capture every risk at once. Innovative digital solutions that model utility networks with sufficient accuracy to meaningfully simulate how they will respond to risks provide operators with deep visibility into their entire network all at once. Technology enables operators to proactively identify the most vulnerable parts of their networks and prioritize the most impactful grid-hardening initiatives.
Manual projects like undergrounding and covered conductor installations can substantially strengthen the grid but are very expensive, especially when implemented across massive parts of the grid at once. Investing in digital modeling technology removes barriers constraining these initiatives with tech-driven insights, enabling utilities to pinpoint which parts of the grid are most urgently in need. From here, utilities can more easily secure budget approval in rate cases, accelerate installation, and improve grid resilience.
Furthermore, digital modeling technology can vastly improve collaboration between utilities, regulators, and the entirety of the energy value chain. Notably, US regulators had only approved less than $500 million of the Biden-Harris administration’s now-approved $13 billion budget for grid modernization as of August 2022.
This delay in approval can in part be attributed to the lack of information on the grid’s current status. Technology solves for incomplete, siloed data to drive faster critical decision-making with all stakeholders able to leverage the same version of the grid’s current status. A single, shared reference point also means stakeholders see the same risks, their order of magnitude, and the investment required to mitigate them.
Secure clean energy supply for tomorrow and today using existing infrastructure with deepened, tech-enabled visibility across the grid
To meet the 2035 goal, the US must add ~70 GW of renewables annually2. While interconnection queues are backlogged with new projects, the existing grid lacks the capacity to bring them online and new transmission can take years to realize, costing millions of dollars. Coal plants are also moving offline faster than initially anticipated which jeopardizes all supply, both clean and traditional if we can’t find ways to move faster.
The digitally-enabled network-wide visibility that improves grid resilience also gives network operators an unprecedented lens into the additional energy capacity their existing networks can handle.
Dynamic line rating is nothing new, but now coupled with granular digital modeling scaled across entire utility networks is assuming a prominent new role in unblocking the US’ clean energy transition. Network operators use digital models to reveal many, even if small, pockets of previously undiscoverable under-utilized capacity throughout the grid. Cumulatively, these untapped pockets can add significant excess capacity to the existing network by adding substantial volumes of supply to the grid.
This technology-enabled process is capable of even doubling existing capacity without new infrastructure. In Australia, New South Wales network service provider Essential Energy has leveraged technology to pioneer this approach and support the achievement of the nation’s 2030 clean energy transition timeline in the most cost-effective manner.
Broadening and deepening visibility across the grid are two integral pieces improving long-term energy resilience and reliability. Embracing technology to understand the grid’s weaknesses and potential will help upgrade infrastructure and make meaningful strides toward a clean energy future in an efficient, cooperative, and cost-effective manner.
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