The United States’ power grids need a major upgrade. The country’s aging grid infrastructure will become a major problem in the not-so-distant future if they aren’t brought up to speed with the nation’s -- and the world’s -- rapidly changing energy landscape.
As we saw in Texas this winter, grid failures can have serious and even tragic consequences. During the lone star state’s rash of extreme cold weather, millions of Texans were left without power, leaving more than people 40 dead due to exposure to the freezing cold, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other causes stemming from the severe cold snap. In the case of Texas, the issue was a problem of deregulation and lack of oversight rather than one of aging infrastructure, but the incident brought the very real and very important need for nationwide grid scrutiny to the fore, and it did so at an important time for the energy industry as a whole. The world was already rushing headlong into an increasingly digitized world, but the spread of the novel coronavirus has supercharged that transition, making us more dependent on the energy grid for more aspects of our professional and personal lives than ever before. Already, we are plugged into the grid all day, but in the future, that will be compounded to a degree that may sound ripped out of science fiction.
“In the future, our vehicles and homes will be in constant conversation with the power grid,” The Verge reported earlier this week. To begin with, as more and more homeowners install solar panels to their residences, our decadeslong one-way relationship with the grid is changing. Instead of just being consumers of power, sold to us by local utilities, we are increasingly becoming producer-consumers (or “prosumers”) just as capable of sending excess energy back to the grid as we are of purchasing it from the grid. And since solar (and wind) is variable, meaning that the amount of energy produced is constantly in flux thanks to weather patterns and that pesky rotation of the Earth, the power grid will have to contend with more variability than ever before thanks to constantly shifting inflow and outflow of electricity.
What’s more, as our cars and homes become “smart,” they too will be in constant communication with the grid, sending and receiving data about exactly how much energy is needed at any one time to keep everything running smoothly. Our smart homes will be wired with responsive computing systems like smart thermometers, which will be sending a constant stream of information to the grid to decide exactly how much energy is needed for heating and cooling your home to the perfect temperatures, while your electric vehicle, whether charging in the garage or out on the road, is simultaneously sharing information about when, where, and how much energy it is consuming or expanding at any given moment.
All of this communication and data-sharing requires a “smart grid.” It also requires a whole lot of energy and infrastructure that we currently do not have, and which we as a nation have been under-investing in for years. But now, it looks like the tide is turning for smart grids, which will have to come to fruition pretty quickly at a considerable scale in order for President Joe Biden’s administration to have any hope of meeting the lofty clean energy goals that its platform rather heavily rests upon.
Biden’s stated goal of bringing the U.S. power sector up to 100 percent clean energy by 2035 (extremely soon in terms of all the work to be done and extremely tardy in terms of the imperatives set by the Paris climate accord and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) will require much smarter, more energy efficient grids with a serious sense of urgency.
All of this means that the country’s electricity sector is at a major turning point. As Ben Kroposki, a director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told The Verge: “This probably is the most exciting time in the power system history in the last 50 years,”
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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