Upgrading the US power grid for the 21st century

The US Department of Energy has announced $220m in funding for projects from a host of national laboratories to help upgrade the country's power grid over the next three years. What work needs to be done to make the grid ’cleaner, more productive and more secure’, and what are the implications for the integration of more grid-connected renewable energy projects in the future?

Hurricane sandy blackout

The national power grid that keeps America's lights on is a massive and immensely valuable asset. Built in the decades after the Second World War and valued today at around $876bn, the country's grid system as a whole connects electricity from thousands of power plants to 150 million customers through more than five million miles of power lines and around 3,300 utility companies.

The supply of relatively reliable grid-based power was a major contributing factor to the US's growth in the second half of the 20th century, and an underlying foundation of the country's post-war economic success story.

Energy infrastructure under stress

However, evidence suggests that this 20th century system is now struggling to keep up with the challenges of electric power transmission and distribution in the 21st century.

Despite an increasing abundance of energy-efficient buildings and other measures, electricity demand has risen by around 10% over the last decade, partly driven by the massive growth of digital device usage and the expanding demand for air conditioning, as summers continue to get hotter in many states.

"The electrical distribution deficit is underlined and exacerbated by the growing frequency of major storms that hit the US each year."

Ageing energy infrastructure based primarily on technology that dates back to the 1960s and 70s is simply straining to meet the needs of a power-hungry population.

The electrical distribution deficit is underlined and exacerbated by the growing frequency of major storms that hit the US each year. One of the consequences of climate change is more severe and less predictable weather, with warmer oceans transferring more destructive energy to storm fronts as they head towards land.

According to 2013 data from the Department of Energy (DOE), US power grid outages have risen by 285% since records on blackouts began in 1984, for the most part driven by the grid's vulnerability to unusual and extreme weather events - such as the devastating Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that caused extensive power outages across the East Coast - which are becoming less unusual as the years roll on.

"We used to have two to five major weather events per year from the 50s to the 80s," said University of Minnesota Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Massoud Amin in a 2014 interview with the International Business Times.

"Between 2008 and 2012, major outages caused by weather increased to 70 to 130 outages per year. Weather used to account for about 17% to 21% of all root causes. Now, in the last five years, it's accounting for 68% to 73% of all major outages."

Facing up to the problem

This is a growing problem that is costing the US a great deal of money - at least $150bn a year according to the DOE - and will also require eye-watering sums to address, with a 2011 technical report by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) pegging the cost to move the US to a smarter national grid with better protection against blackout events at somewhere between $338bn and $476bn.

However, the EPRI's research also strongly indicates that this investment would provide an extremely positive societal return, with the total benefits of a smart grid system estimated at $1.2tn to $2tn.

"The smart grid will assure that consumers are provided with reliable, high-quality digital-grade power, increased electricity-related services and an improved environment," reads the EPRI's report. "The smart grid will allow the benefits resulting from the rapid growth of renewable power generation and storage as well as the increased use of electric vehicles to become available to consumers.

"Without the development of the smart grid, the full value of a lot of individual technologies like electric vehicles, electric energy storage, demand response, distributed resources, and large central station renewables such as wind and solar will not be fully realized."

The US Government, acknowledging the scale of the problem and the massive upside potential of working to solve it, has begun to invest in large-scale grid modernisation schemes.

President Barack Obama's 2009 post-crash stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, prompted more than $4.5bn in DOE investments for grid modernisation, including $3.3bn for smart grid technology and $685m in regional smart grid and energy storage demonstration projects.

The DOE has cited significant improvements to US grid reliability and resiliency as a result of this investment, and has trumpeted successful projects derived from the Smart Grid Investment Grant, which increased grid reliability by 45% in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and reduced metering operations costs by 65% for Georgia's Tri-State Electric Membership Corporation.

The Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium

The latest government investment in grid modernisation was announced by Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in January 2016 as he toured the facilities of Florida-based utility Florida Power & Light, which has invested more than $2bn over the last decade to strengthen the local grid's defences.

The measures taken by the company provide a good indication of some of the work involved in typical grid hardening efforts. It inspected 1.2 million utility poles, cleared vegetation from 120,000 miles worth of power lines, and has developed an interconnected communication system between its remote equipment and its recently remodelled system control centre, allowing for much faster reaction times during emergencies.

"FPL really is on the cutting edge of addressing a grid for the 21st century and particularly in the area of resilience," Moniz said. "It's really what we need."

At the end of the tour, Moniz announced $220m in new funding over the next three years for the DOE's Grid Modernization Multi-Year Program Plan (MYPP), a scheme laying out the government's R&D-focussed plans to develop and demonstrate new technologies in support of the wider grid modernisation endeavour.

"FPL really is on the cutting edge of addressing a grid for the 21st century and particularly in the area of resilience."

The MYPP involves the participation of the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium (GMLC), an alliance of 14 DOE national laboratories and various industry and local government partners led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which is taking part in 48 of the 88 projects announced under the scheme.

The grid modernisation MYPP is a clear indicator that Moniz and the DOE recognise that more research is required to prove new concepts and accelerate the deployment of smart grid and other modern grid technologies.

"The Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium is a new way of efficiently leveraging the strengths and capabilities of America's national laboratories to deploy new concepts and technologies that will make the grid cleaner, more productive, and more secure," said NREL associate laboratory director and GMLC co-chair Bryan Hannegan after the announcement.

Supporting new ideas for a 21st century grid

The wide range of projects being funded by the MYPP is intended to, among many other things, establish a nationwide network of lab facilities for testing grid-related technologies, promote the harmonisation of grid technology standards to ensure that future systems are interoperable, and develop new 'decision support tools' to simplify the implementation of advanced grid concepts such as distributed generation, demand response and smart consumer appliances.

As well as minimising the disruption caused by risk factors like storms and demand surges, grid modernisation efforts also offer technological opportunities to take proper advantage of concepts such as demand response, distributed energy, improved integration and storage of renewables and local-scale migrogrids. These concepts represent the way forward for modern energy distribution systems to adapt to a more challenging electricity supply landscape.

"The grid's current one-way communication architecture is increasingly at odds with a growing trend in American energy: generation of power from sources outside of electric utilities, like rooftop solar panels," wrote the DOE's Under Secretary for Science and Technology Franklin Orr in an editorial for Breaking Energy in January 2016.

"A modernized grid will better capture energy when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, store that energy for when it is most needed and make sure that the electricity that is needed is available all the time."

Given the huge amounts of money that the US - in common with many other countries - will have to spend on grid modernisation in the coming decades, it only makes sense to organise the country's bank of world-class national laboratories into a broad coalition that can improve the underlying technology and the deployment process for the innovative tech that is needed to bring the grid back up to date.

If the laboratories can show the way forward with their dozens of projects, as well as attract investment from industry partners, there is a good chance that in 20 years, cutting edge concepts like distributed generation, microgrids and energy storage might not seem quite so much at odds with the US's wider energy system.