Plugged In Blog

Blind Spots in the U.S. Power Grid: Plugging the Gaps Affordably and Efficiently

05.08.22

When considering the scale of power generated and the number of customers reliably electrified, no one can deny that the modern U.S. power grid is an engineering marvel. In fact, a commonly cited quote posits that “The American electric grid is the largest and most complicated machine every built by man.”

But while we can stop to admire the ingenuity and sheer elbow grease that went into creating such an awe-inspiring system, we must also note that the U.S. grid is far from perfect. As time goes on and the equipment running the grid age and break down, the performance and reliability of the grid may be getting worse. The prevalence of weaknesses, even blind spots, of the grid only becomes clearer.

To prepare the U.S. grid for the future—one dictated by a clean energy transition, a rapidly expanding population, and new sources of power demand from electrified transportation to buildings— American leaders must focus their collective attention on what must be done. The grid needs funding and commitment, and many of the most urgent needs on the grid cannot wait. But because of how expansive the United States is and how its power sector is regulated by a patchwork of local, state, and federal policy, making swift and comprehensive grid modernization efforts can be quite challenging. That said, a multitude of technologies have come along that can start to plug these gaps efficiently and effectively.

What are the Grid’s Weaknesses?

Aging Grid Infrastructure

Politicians often point to the aging electric power grid as an area they’d like to invest, citing the aging infrastructure that desperately needs a modern upgrade. These promises have become almost cliché in the effort to score easy political points, as most all voters would agree a reliable and safe power grid is a top priority. Unlike many talking points that get thrown around, these challenges are not without sincere merit, with a 2015 U.S. Department of Energy report concluding that 70% of transformers and transmission power lines were at least 25 years old, while 60% of circuit breakers were at least 30 years old. 

Utility companies recognize the need to upgrade their aging equipment but doing so takes capital—a lot of it—and arguably even more time, not to mention the bureaucratic red tape. But they’ve tried to put their money where their mouth is, as spending on power distribution systems by major utilities has risen 54% from $31 billion per year to $51 billion per year in the past two decades.

That said, funding thus far has only amounted to a drop in the bucket of what’s needed, and politicians have been leaning on the promise of more spending without delivering for far too long. So, while the problem has long-been diagnosed, the prescription has been written but remains unfilled.

Resilience and Reliability Issues

Additionally, customers across the grid have had to contend with more common resilience and reliability issues with the power systems in recent years. While the common line of thinking may have been that advancing technologies and more intelligent systems would mean that power interruptions are increasingly becoming just a past memory, the reality has instead been that a myriad of new resilience and reliability issues have arisen.

For one, the types of natural disasters that bring down portions of the grid have only become more common. As carbon emissions continue to spew into the atmosphere, hurricanes have become more frequent and intense in recent years. These major storms have continued to spell disaster for the grid in states in the typical pathway of these major weather events, notably in Florida and Louisiana. Climate impacts have also created longer-lasting and more sever dry seasons on the West Coast, conditions that have brought rise to an increase in wildfires that similarly create power supply interruptions. Not only that, but unexpected new events have been brought about by changing weather patterns, notably the exceedingly rare winter storm in Texas that nearly brought state-wide grid collapse in February 2021. All told, government data suggest that power outages tied to climate-related disasters have doubled in the past 20 years.

Beyond just major weather events, the growing prominence of digital and intelligent equipment on the grid has created new opportunities for grid interruptions as well. With sensors, artificial intelligence, and other ‘smart’ equipment installed across the grid, data has become available to allow for better diagnostics on the grid, but it’s also opened new areas of potential vulnerability. Every ‘opening’ into the grid systems can be exploited by potential cyberattacks, and when the grid operators aren’t able to stay two steps ahead of the bad actors, reliability can be compromised.

All told, customers may be understanding as to what is causing these reliability and resilience issues, but they do not have to simply accept it as necessity. A 99% success rate may be exceedingly successful for other industries, but given how much critical health, safety, and productivity is reliant on consistent power supply, a 1% interruption rate can sour the whole experience and drive customers to call for change.

Pockets of Rural and Disadvantaged Americans Being Overlooked

Beyond the above issues, a key and glaring blind spot regarding the grid comes from the places where it literally doesn’t yet reach. When people talk about regions across the world that are not currently connected to the grid, they might only be imagining third world countries and developing nations. However, pockets of the United States still lack access to critical energy infrastructure. Of note, the United States still has 60,000 citizens who lack access to power in Navajo Nation.

Further, even for those Americans in remote or rural areas who are on the grid, the above-mentioned issues of reliability and modernization present outsized challenges for them compared with those living in more urban environments. The return on investment for new technologies (e.g., electric vehicle infrastructure, utility-scale renewable energy projects, new transmission assets, and more) are significantly less in rural areas because of how far removed they are from centralized generation and how many fewer customers are tapping into them. But that doesn’t mean these communities need or deserve the benefits of those new technologies any less. In fact, in rural communities where incomes are on average 25% lower than urban incomes, the potential benefits of grid upgrades would be even more beneficial to households who thus have higher energy burdens. But because the economics are harder to work out for these projects, these communities must wait longer to get these upgrades, if they get them at all.

Solving for these Blind Spots

Long-Term Outlook

When looking for long-term solutions to the weaknesses and blind spots felt prevalently across the grid, several opportunities become clear:

  • Government funding: If a main hurdle towards upgrading the grid where and how it’s needed is in the lack of money to do so, then government funding is a clear direction in which to go. As noted, political candidates are quick to promise grid modernization as a part of their platforms, but once they’re in office it often seems that those moneys are hard to find in the scale in which they’re needed. Even after running a campaign on the most ambitious energy-related funding of any candidate, President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal (which remains stalled in political gridlock) offered only a fraction of the funding needed to transform the grid according to multiple studies.
  • Intelligent technologies: Another long-term trend that can help bring about new resilience and other upgrades to the grid is the prevalence of intelligent technologies. Creating the so-called ‘digital grid’ of tomorrow enables analytics, cloud computing, grid flexibility, new customer service opportunities, and so many more untapped potential upgrades. The future grid will indeed be a more digital one, but these upgrades similarly require the type of funding and commitment that will need time to come to fruition.
  • Advancing regulatory guidance: Part of the challenge of real grid optimization comes because the U.S. power grid is, in reality, multiple disparate grids that happen to be linked up. Different states regulate their power grids in unique ways, regional transmission operators vary across regions of the nation, and the federal authority to guide the power systems is limited in nature. That said, as federal energy policy often gets mired in gridlock, the states have a history of taking the lead to ensure progress and, many of which are looking closely at the role they can play at plugging gaps on the grid for their citizens. These policies will likely look towards programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to see how states can collaborate and bring about best practices from one state to the next. But as with all bureaucracy, these initiatives will still take time.

Near-Term Stop Gap: Distributed Energy Resources

While the above long-term solutions will remain critical for the future of the grid, simply waiting for them to come will result in missing the near-term opportunities to plug the gap. Specifically, stakeholders across the grid today can, and should, embrace distributed energy resources (DERs) to ensure optimal grid experiences.

Utilizing DERs is the one true approach where energy end customers can really take power into their own hands. While people can express concern to their utilities and vote for political candidates who promise change, those are institutions that take a while to create change. To protect themselves in the meantime, customers can utilize DERs to take control.

For so many of the issues highlighted above, consumers embracing the new role of a prosumer presents new opportunities. Did the power go out unexpectedly? Tap into your solar panels and/or on-site batteries to keep the juice flowing. Is it too expensive for the utility to build new transmission infrastructure hundreds of miles from central power plants to the rural environment? Join the trend of farmers and land owners building out their own large-scale wind and solar assets, connecting these to their local communities via microgrids. Note that energy storage again will be a key part of this type of build out.

The power grid was immensely impressive over the 20th century in which it was first built, and again it still is when considering its scale and what opportunities it has afforded society to thrive and evolve. But for all the advances the energy sector has made in terms of smart meters, renewable energy technology, digital opportunities, and more, many parts of the grid still look like it did early on. Today’s shift towards distributed energy, however, is empowering transformation in ways nothing else has matched—and the benefits to the customers are abundant. Customers who intelligently invest in and support distributed assets like self-generation and energy storage solutions will:

  • Save money on power bills (or even make money with net metering)
  • Provide backup power for their homes without expensive and dirty generators
  • Do their part to decarbonize the grid
  • Insulate themselves from rising energy prices
  • Improve property values
  • And with the right energy storage technologies, new opportunities can be unlocked: charge up batteries and take them to outdoor events, to do remote yard work, to go camping, or anywhere else where reliably and easily plugging in would be advantageous.

For any customers who are still under the outdated notion that investing in battery technology for their home or business is out of reach, impractical, or unnecessary, Joule Case offers the type of modular, upgradable, and affordable systems that unlock the potential of energy storage that you can tap into today. Reach out to us or read more about our use cases to learn more.

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