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Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard Hyman & William Tilles

Leonard S. Hyman is an economist and financial analyst specializing in the energy sector. He headed utility equity research at a major brokerage house and…

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U.S. Energy Grid Faces Huge Problems Amid Push To ‘Electrify Everything’

  • Since 2000, the number of major system disturbances has octupled in the U.S.
  • The U.S. energy grid is aging quickly.
  • Consumers may choose to forgo utility solutions and invest in self generation and storage

The Associated Press (AP) story covered two pages and began with a big headline, “Storms batter aging power grid.” The accompanying pictures showed homes awash and power poles atilt. The gist of the story was that more powerful storms are here to stay and the power grid needs an upgrade. Just in case you think this is hyperbole, consider that, since 2000, the number of major system disturbances has octupled,  the number of disturbances that led to a loss of 100 MW or more has quadrupled; and the number of disturbances affecting 100,000 or more customers has also quadrupled. And this is not because consumers are using so much more electricity. But instead, operating conditions have changed but the electrical grid has not. Figure 1 shows the year by year trends. 

Figure 1.  Electricity reliability trends for  2000-2021 in USA. 


Source: Energy Information Administration

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The AP’s reporters quoted many experts who said that the power grid needed more investment on transmission and distribution assets. Well, that might help, for sure. But looking at that record, its variability and upward trend, maybe the question should be: should more money go to the power grid? What have the power grid owners and operators been doing for the last two decades to prepare for events predicted decades ago?

If power costs keep rising while reliability issues remain, customers who need digitally reliable power may choose to forgo utility solutions and invest in self generation and storage. The declining cost of renewables and batteries make that transition even easier from a financial perspective. Will distributed reliability become cheaper than grid reliability? What we’re really asking here, “Is long distance power transmission even feasible through vast, fire prone areas.?” When the electrical grid was originally designed and built this wasn’t a problem. It would be an imprudent utility that was committed to rebuilding its transmission lines every year only to have them burned down again in a forest fire.  Related: Russia Ready To Sell Oil At Any Price

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This leads us to the politically charged question of energy equity. Do we as a society continue to permit or encourage wealthier individuals and corporations, those who can afford to put in expensive self generation and power storage equipment, to do so?  Who gets left in the dark, the cold or the heat in summer—obviously those who can’t afford to make significant behind the meter investments.

These conversations about grid reliability are also occurring against a backdrop of the “electrify everything” movement starting obviously with the transportation sector. This means even greater demands on the grid from increasing numbers of electric vehicle owners. Lengthy power outages, if they occur, will now also begin to jeopardize transportation as vehicle batteries can’t recharge. We’re facing a paradox with respect to grid based electric power. As a society we want to electrify as many sectors of the economy as possible for human health and other environmental benefits. However, we can’t “electrify everything” with a power grid that is increasingly unreliable.

There was an old slogan from the environmental movement, “small is beautiful.” We think this may have to be adopted as the new mantra for power transmission designers. Vast sections of the country are becoming increasingly inhospitable for relatively fragile power transmission systems due to wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and the line. And yes we can bury all these lines at enormous expense. But perhaps we should begin to entertain the alternative, namely that locally produced power, moving relatively short distances can enhance reliability without an undue cost burden.

By Leonard Hyman and William Tilles for Oilprice.com

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