What this summer's heatwaves tell us about America's electric grid

Timothy O'Connor

 With another triple-digit heatwave scorching the Southwest this week, fears of widespread outages are back.

California’s grid operator has urged homes and businesses to crank up thermostats and avoid running power-hungry appliances during evening peak hours – all in an effort to avoid disruptions like the ones we saw earlier this month.

The dangerous and expensive outages that left 80,000 Los Angeles residents in the dark then may have been limited to Southern California, but they should sound alarms nationwide. The world is changing, affecting how our grid works.

Utilities are taking steps to adapt and expand their power systems to maintain reliability and accommodate the growth of renewables, but they need to pick up the pace – and fast.

We have lots of power, but not enough grid

The most basic issue all electric grid operators grapple with is whether they’ll have enough capacity and supply to meet electricity demands of a growing population. Interestingly, California is expected to have enough electricity to go around this week – just like it did during the recent outage in LA.

What failed in early July was not the state’s power mix or supply, but the grid which – like an old car on the side of the road – had overheated and shut down in some places.

Grid infrastructure investments and business models simply aren’t keeping up with technology advancements and changing consumer needs of today’s America.

Needed: A modern, flexible grid open to new technology

The electric utility industry, which already invests tens of billions in grid updates annually, needs to spend as much as $2 trillion between 2010 and 2030 to maintain reliable service, the Brattle Group estimated in an often-cited report for Edison Electric Institute.

What’s needed are not just more poles, lines and transmission boxes – but also advanced infrastructure that can accommodate rooftop solar systems, electric cars, solar-powered water heaters and other cutting-edge technology. 

At a time when such products are becoming increasingly popular, an unprepared and inflexible grid can hamper and reduce the potential of new technology – while continuing to struggle with capacity problems.

Time to look over those rate structures

Special electricity rates, such as time-based pricing, encourage and reward customers for using electricity when low-carbon options are most abundant, or for reducing demand when the grid is stressed. They can help us rely less on fossil fuels.

But well-designed rate structures, incentive programs and customer engagement strategies are not available everywhere. As utilities seek to better balance energy demand and build a grid for the future, they will also need to offer customers more flexible rates. 

Demand for power only going up

Besides the fact that utilities must serve 50 million more Americans than they did just 20 years ago, each of us relies more on electricity. Whether it’s our iPhones and laptops or the cloud services we connect them to, our personal and business lives are completely dependent on power and a reliable grid.

Add to that a warming climate that will make us use more electricity to cool down, and maybe more power to treat and transport water during droughts. Over the next 100 years, our grid will be tested by Mother Nature more than ever before.

We need an energy infrastructure that won’t only stand up to more pressure, but that can also respond more quickly to outages and damage. This is one of the most important investments we can make as we continue to face heatwaves in California and beyond.

Comments

We will pay a very high price if we don't do something about climate change now.

Cathy Pohlman
July 26, 2018 at 7:35 pm

So all homes should be fitted with panels etc. for free, no lease, no installation costs for roof upgrades, no costs to the homeowner whatever. The power companies write grants to do this. The only costs to the home owner would be for energy they use over what their panels produce.

John Norton
July 28, 2018 at 12:20 am

Demand is NOT going up in New England! Energy efficiency, demand response, and distributed clean energy keeping electricity use much lower than in the past.

Jane Winn
July 28, 2018 at 5:50 pm

One of the big problems of solar & wind is grid stability. Operators of the grid are required by law to maintain the frequency and voltage, thus matching supply with demand. Winds go up and down, clouds sometimes block the sun. In those short term events, the grid and fixed power supplies must make up the difference. Usually this requires spinning generators such as hydro or gas/coal fired plants. Nuclear doesn't ramp up and down well in the time frames needed (10 min. or less).

Rate payers must contribute to maintaining this infrastructure whether they are running solar or other home generation. Giving homeowners retail rates for power they push back on the grid is just pushing the cost onto their neighbors.

We need to adjust the rate structures to be fair - and that may make home rooftop solar uneconomical.

Art Valla
August 2, 2018 at 2:59 pm

Thanks for your comment, Art. You are correct that wind and solar energy are variable and fossil fuels are often used to balance out this variability when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. However, there are lots of “behind the meter” solutions – like time-of-use pricing and demand response – that can help offset the need for fossil fuels plants when renewable energy is not available. Innovative policy solutions can help, too. For example, EDF is currently advocating for a bill before the California legislature to expand the state’s grid so it can buy renewable energy from neighboring states instead of relying on fossil fuels to balance the grid. 

Regarding your comment about electricity rates for rooftop solar owners, I agree this is a complex policy issue and it’s one EDF is working on with regulators in several states. One thing to consider about rooftop solar, however, is that it provides many environmental, societal and even grid benefits that must be factored in when setting rates for solar customers.

In fact, a recent Environment America study found that “individuals and businesses that decide to “go solar” generally deliver greater benefits to the grid and society than they receive through net metering” (the practice of paying solar owners for the electricity they feed back to the grid). A short list of these benefits include reduced financial risks and electricity prices, increased grid resiliency, economic development, and improved air quality.

For a more in-depth discussion of these benefits, I’d recommend diving into the Environment America report, as well as the California Net Energy Metering Ratepayer Impacts Evaluation, which details the costs and benefits of net metering in California.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment and I hope these answers address some of your concerns about rooftops solar.

James Fine
August 6, 2018 at 11:19 am

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