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The U.S. Grid Isn’t Ready For A Major Shift To Renewables

The blame game for the massive power outages in Texas last month continues. The dominant argument is that renewables had an ignorable part to play in the crisis, with natural gas and coal the indirect culprits due to their reduced availability resulting from infrastructure freezing and diverting supplies for heating purposes.

Yet what the real problem actually lies in, not just in Texas but everywhere where energy demand is growing, is grid reliability and resiliency.

"When it comes to the U.S. electrical grid, it is the largest interconnected machine on Earth: 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines, linking thousands of generating plants to factories, homes and businesses," Westhaven Power, a California utility, told Oilprice.

This is one massive system, and the sources that feed it electricity have become increasingly diversified. And while the shortage of natural gas was a big reason for the power outages in Texas, it was certainly not a shortage of gas that caused the blackouts in California last summer during a heatwave. Grid reliability has come to the fore because the decarbonization of electricity generation is not all fun, games, and zero-emission power.

The U.S. grid, as it is now, cannot support the massive shift to low-carbon power generation, Westhaven Power says. Operators need better control of regional grids to be able to anticipate dangerous situations like the ones in Texas and California, but obtaining it would become trickier with more intermittent wind and solar feeding the grid, the utility explains.

"What events in Texas and California demonstrate is the shortcomings of having highly-centralised power systems and the true value of resilience and flexibility in our energy grids, a value that is going to become even more vital as we continue to transition to renewable energy," says Dr. Toby Gill, the chief executive of UK-based climate tech startup Intelligent Power Generation.

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So what is there to do to reduce the risk of such occurrences in the future as the world—and the United States—moves inexorably towards a more renewables-heavy energy mix and, more importantly, as electricity demand booms.

The simplest and most straightforward answer is investments in strengthening the grid. Bloomberg's Rachel Morison writes that global investments in grid infrastructure could rise to $28.7 trillion by 2050 assuming a triple increase in renewable power generation capacity and a 60-percent boom in electricity demand. These assumptions are quite safe: the drive to lower humankind's carbon footprint is, in fact, a drive to electrify everything that can be electrified, so demand will increase as a consequence of that. How smart the "Electrify all" call is, however, is a different question.

"The risks for power consumers are rising as the typical home electrifies an increasing share of its energy consumption," Sanjeet Sanghera, a BloombergNEF analyst, told Bloomberg's Morison. "You are putting all your eggs in one basket."

While it is one of the wiser rules in life that you should not put all your eggs in one basket, the dominant narrative among politicians seems to be that we have no other basket left but the electrification of everything. This means that we need to brace for the costs. Europe alone will need to spend $4.9 trillion on its grids, Morison notes, adding that as much as 45 percent of this investment will be used to strengthen the already existing infrastructure.

In addition to strengthening the centralized grid, there is also a solution in boosting the share of distributed power systems, according to experts. This would alleviate the consumption load on the grid, potentially reducing the risk of overloads and outages. It might also reduce—slightly—the size of investments that need to be made in new transmission infrastructure to connect new solar and wind installations to the grid.

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"When our energy systems are pushed to their limits, through extreme weather changes as in both of these cases, and power generation sources are taken offline, the impact is felt at much greater scale," IPG's Gill told Oilprice. "If however, we have more segmented/distribution power sources, we lower our reliability on fewer large power sources, therefore reducing the number of towns and people affected when one or more of these go offline."

"Reliability and resilience – even in the face of extreme events – is achieved through diversity, redundancy, and modularization. Co-locating energy supply with demand through microgrids and other DERs [distributed energy resources] is an important step in preventing widespread crises like this in the future," according to Mark Feasel, Smart Grid president, Schneider Electric North America.

"In both cases [Texas and California], the strain could have been reduced with distributed resources, such as batteries and solar, as well as demand response tools, like smart thermostats with utility control," says K.C. Boyce, vice president of human insights firm Escalent's energy division. "However, Texas has limited distributed resources and demand response, and while California has lots of distributed resources, it doesn't have a good way of coordinating those resources, nor does it really have demand response tools to call on."

So, it seems that decentralizing the grid could go quite a long way towards reducing risks and ensuring a stable power supply. Of course, it will also cost money. But with the right incentives, this kind of investment might be more palpable for consumers than higher electricity bills because utilities are centrally strengthening the grid. In any case, one thing is clear, and it is that grids, as they are at the moment, will not be able to cope successfully with the changes in the energy mix.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com 

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Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. More