You won’t notice, but your power grid will be period changing.
In an article written by Tyler Clifford and published on August 9, 2020 on cnbc.com, the CEO of the generator company Generac, Aaron Jagdfeld, voiced his opinion that massive changes were in store for the nation’s power grid. He’s right. Big changes are coming to a staid industry. Below I describe them more fully.
The nation’s power grids are old and vulnerable. They’re invisible until there’s an outage. Then they’re suddenly in the spotlight. It’s clear big changes are needed — and coming. The utilities that run the grids, are long accustomed to handling energy from one distant source over long high-voltage power lines, and distributing it to local customers at a cost-plus rate set periodically by a state power commission. Supply was fixed and dependable. Demand varied predictably on a daily and seasonal basis, subject only to rare disruptions by extreme weather events. It mattered little to the utility if the supply of electricity was generated by burning coal, oil, or natural gas. However, utilities are required by regulations that have the force of law to meet a standard of no more than one outage in ten years. To comply with this requirement, utilities maintain what are called peaker plants, which are local oil- or gas-fired generating plants that can be pressed into service quickly if needed by a spike in demand or a sudden drop in supply from the grid.
The old order is changing. Power generated by the sun or the wind is challenging the long dominance of coal, oil, and gas both in economic cost — cheaper per kilowatt — and social cost — no climate-heating greenhouse gas emissions and no life-shortening particulate air pollution. However both wind and solar power is intermittent — if the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, a back-up power supply is needed. This can be a peaker plant or a battery that stores electricity until it’s needed. Battery capacity has been going up, and cost per kilowatt hour has been coming down, to the point that wind/solar plus storage is technically feasible, socially correct, economically viable and the option of choice. Incorporating these new supply channels into an existing grid require changes both in the operation and the management of that grid. Supply may come from multiple sources, especially if rooftop solar installations are integrated into the system, and it will fluctuate according to weather conditions. Demand will also fluctuate more than utility managers are accustomed to because variable cloud and wind conditions affect whether demand exceeds supply so that electricity must be drawn from the storage batteries. These days, software can handle all the balancing of ins and outs so that everyone on the grid (almost) always has power, but too few local utilities have installed it. Doing so is one of the massive changes coming to the grid.
Another massive change on the horizon is the need to harden the grid, to better protect it from the high winds and falling trees of increasingly frequent and intense storms both in summer and winter, and to better secure it from terrorist attracts, whether physical or cyber. As more storms each year incur costs in excess of $1 billion, the argument improves for burying the parts of the grid that are most prone to damage from hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, fires, and floods, as well as ones that are tempting targets for terrorists. The Washington-based Climate Institute, led by veteran activist John Topping, has long advocated forcefully for such a course of action.
Communication cables are mostly buried; electric cables could be too. Each tranche to be buried would face multiple hurdles to overcome, but none would be insurmountable. Each would be costly, but so are power outages. The cost-benefit calculation would vary by tranche, but given the expectation of ever-worsening climate-related events and the ever-increasing costs incurred by those events, most high-risk tranches of the grid will tip in favor of burial. It will begin in this decade and the most vulnerable tranches will be buried by the end of the next. And you probably won’t notice a thing, except maybe that the power stayed on when all hell broke loose.