By Dr. Shay Bahramirad
Senior Vice President of Engineering and Asset Management at LUMA Energy (Power Company in Puerto Rico) & President-Elect of IEEE Power and Energy Society
Today the grid reflects the population’s access to reliable electricity and a key component of everyday life. A reliable electric grid is a pre-requisite for everything from communications to advanced healthcare services, water treatments facilities, food storage, and aspects that make modern life possible. Industries design their infrastructure centered around this grid-based business model.
As the 21st century unfolds, the current model must transition to meet the needs of a changing world, which can potentially impact the very foundation of today’s grid.
The grid is at a turning point
Historically many methods widely employed for producing electricity were reliant on processes that created poorer air quality and emitted damaging pollutants into the atmosphere. The vast expanses of the grid also experienced many vulnerabilities due to extreme weather events, including those from climate change.
For these reasons, the grid is ideally positioned for carbon reduction strategies. In the United States, electricity production is responsible for approximately 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from generation methods using coal or natural gas and which comprise 62% of total electricity production. This overall total mirrors global numbers with 25% of greenhouse gas emissions due to electricity and heat production, which is the single largest source of these emissions. Transitioning to renewable and clean energy will bring the world a big step closer to net-zero emissions. Broader renewable electrification of infrastructure will also extend the impact of decarbonizing the grid by bringing segments like industry and transportation under the umbrella of clean energy production.
The importance of a resilient grid is also illuminated by disaster-response organizations. The United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recognizes electricity as a key community lifeline that enables societies to function. As such, when the grid goes down, the consequences can be significant in terms of health, economic, and social impacts. These consequences are not distributed evenly, with marginalized communities often at a higher vulnerability for outages and adverse impacts resulting from said outages. Unfortunately, recent high-profile power outages have also served as a reminder of how quickly those aspects on which our modern society is increasingly reliant can falter, and the grave consequences when it does for a prolonged period of time.
The grid is now at a turning point with many promising new technologies and approaches to delivering electricity available coupled with investments at historic levels in many parts of the world. While these offer new possibilities for re-designing the grid, visibility of the existing infrastructure in place can be potentially unfortunately lost.
Tradeoffs during the transition
As the transition of the engineered aspects of the grid as well as business shifts are explored, some of the nuances need to be acknowledged that the urgency and advocacy often inadvertently omit.
New technologies are creating tremendous opportunities for building resilience through smarter controllers, renewables integration, distributed energy networks, new construction approaches, and possibilities for a transition away from centralized energy production, transmission, and distribution. The developments are incredibly exciting. Their progress with every new proof of concept and demonstration project offers more options in how electricity is provided to homes and businesses. But as the current infrastructure ages, it will need bolstering to provide these new technologies and approaches time to mature. Few will disagree with the shared vision of clean and resilient means of electricity that is available to everyone equitably. The urgency of rebuilding the grid, however, can outpace the readiness of the transition, and inadvertently exacerbate inequalities and reduce resilience during an overzealous transition period.
For example, the mechanisms for integrating new technologies to scale often include tax benefits and reduced lifecycle costs for owners. These are demonstrably good incentives but can be inaccessible to poorer communities that may lack access to upfront costs for purchases having lower tax liabilities, which will not benefit from certain deductions. In some cases, the grid in marginalized communities is not yet capable of incorporating new technologies, and access to facilitators of transportation electrification, like public electric charging, is also not reaching these areas. Further, switching to fully renewable and decentralized energy before the system is ready can lead to a less reliable grid in the short-term. As noted above, reductions in reliability can harm the most vulnerable in more ways and at higher rates.
It can be challenging to both share the goals of aggressively advocating for modernizing the grid, while simultaneously recognizing the harm that can be done if these goals are disassociated from today’s reality. A transition will take time, but if done correctly, reliability or equity does not need to be compromised in the process.
There are many reasons for excitement with the transformation of the energy systems towards a more environmentally conscious and equitable future. Indeed, these changes will be part of the fabric for society for generations to come. Caution, however, and consideration must also play roles to avoid the unintended consequences of good intentions. The grid must remain reliable during this transition and in the face of increasing demands and stressors. New business models and investments in infrastructure will also need to reflect notions of resilience that look beyond the grid and into the communities it serves. With a thoughtful and responsible approach, we can help to ensure that this transformation fulfills the promise for a cleaner and more just electricity infrastructure that benefits all.
Thumbnail credit: Orbon Alija on iStock