It’s Time to Upgrade Our Energy Infrastructure

The energy grid is what connects our homes and businesses to the energy-producing power plants we all depend upon. This vital energy infrastructure is comprised of thousands of miles of transmission lines, distribution lines, transformer stations, and other components essential to giving us the energy we need on demand. When the power goes out during a storm or other disaster, it means the grid has failed us. This loss of power can put our homes and well-being at risk and is why grid resiliency has been top of mind for many in the energy sector in recent years. The need to update our aging energy grid and build stronger mechanisms for efficiency and resiliency grows more urgent each day. It is time we start thinking about how to upgrade our energy production and distribution infrastructure to reflect our needs going forward.

Utilities, consumers, and regulators are experimenting across the country with innovative ideas to make improved grid infrastructure a reality. For example, a municipal utility is combining utility-scale battery storage and consumer-owned storage (i.e., electric cars, home battery systems, etc.) to enable the town of Westmoreland, NH to be backed up in the event that their one transmission line in town goes down.  Rather than being caught off guard in the event of an outage, this utility-scale battery system can provide power in emergencies. Furthermore, under normal conditions, the battery system allows the town to draw stored energy during peak consumption times, saving money in the long term, as peak demand pricing is usually higher in cost.

Other energy consumers are combining on-site battery storage, power generation through solar or co-generation, and energy management systems to build custom microgrids. A microgrid is interconnected to the larger grid but is capable of operating independently during a power shortage or outage situations. This unique capability is becoming more popular among manufacturing facilities, warehouses, universities and schools, and just about any place where losing power is not an option. As with the utility storage system highlighted above, a microgrid can also help ease price spikes during peak consumption times by drawing from the battery storage.

How else can utilities make the grid more resilient? While there are things businesses and individuals can do, large-scale grid infrastructure updates are needed. These updates may require substantial public investment and planning. This article, which is an excellent primer on our electricity infrastructure, estimates it would cost around $5 trillion to update the grid system across the US in its current form. However, this estimate does not take into account the numerous problems associated with our grid’s current form, even if it weren’t in a state of disrepair. A reliance on fossil fuel-based energy has enabled huge, centralized power plants and complex, often wasteful transmission and distribution systems. This carbon-dependent energy system is also a significant driver of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. These issues aside, the grid system as it is is vulnerable to hacking, severe weather, and other systemic shocks.

How can we begin to build a more sustainable and resilient grid? Some of the solutions have already been highlighted above. The idea of distributed generation, in particular, the use of renewable energy sources, is gaining traction in the energy resilience world. Having numerous interconnected microgrid networks that include solar generation, battery storage, and a “smart” grid energy management system could help us move away from the often wasteful, centralized energy grid. This distributed network could also make the system more resilient since we could potentially draw power from several sources, instead of losing power when essential transmission lines are threatened.

There are many big ideas out there when it comes to making energy production and distribution more resilient, and this article has only begun to scratch the surface. What do you think of a “smart grid” or a decentralized energy grid? Would you consider a microgrid or solar generation for your home or business? Let us know in the comments section below.