Grid Transformation: Resilience and Reliability

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Of the many things many of us take for granted, a safe and reliable electrical power grid is one. However, grids the world over face major challenges: we need to simultaneously ensure grids can withstand the impact of a changing climate and integrate more distributed, renewable energy as we seek to mitigate climate change.

The electricity power grid is similar to the human metabolism. Essentially, we need to ensure both systems stay in balance to ensure that we thrive, or at the very least, function. To ensure the long-term sustainability of our energy system, we need cleaner fuel sources, more efficient energy distribution, improved energy storage and a resilient system.

We need to simultaneously ensure grids can withstand the impact of a changing climate and integrate more distributed, renewable energy as we seek to mitigate climate change.

Healthier Inputs

Often the first thing healthcare providers consider when giving guidance on metabolism is diet. We need a healthier balance of energy that will be able to sustain us over the long term. Many power companies are shifting their fuel sources accordingly. Drax Energy in the UK is converting its coal power stations to sustainable biomass as part of its ambition to be coal-free. Utility-scale solar and wind farms (on land or offshore) also present opportunities to change the inputs to the grid. However, many renewable energy options – such as rooftop solar- are distributed.

Distributed energy presents one of biggest challenges and opportunities for grids.

Efficient Distribution

Distributed energy presents one of biggest challenges and opportunities for grids. We are shifting from traditional one-way model from large power stations to a two-way model of distributed energy resources (DER).

This has ramifications for balancing the total amount of energy in the system. Just as our bodies balance sugar in our bloodstream, our grid needs sophisticated technologies and incentives to ensure the energy load is at the right level. Demand response is a critical mechanism to do this and is gaining traction. Grid operators around the world, from China to California to Europe, are launching programs to enable demand response. Smart grids, the Internet of Things, and the electrification of transportation all lead to greater ability to balance the load.

Energy Storage

Storage is a key way for us to manage the load as well. Batteries enable us to draw on energy in times of lower production (think: fat in our bodies). Tesla has been a strong innovator in this space, with its residential Powerwall and commercial Powerpack batteries and its recent acquisition of ultra-capacitors manufacturer Maxwell Technologies. Puerto Rico’s electrical system was destroyed by hurricanes in 2017; Tesla batteries on the island helped it function. In fact, the island’s rebuild of the grid is an opportunity for it to develop the “grid of the future.” Other technologies are progressing in this space, for example, thermal storage is gaining momentum.

Resiliency is a rising focus for utilities, in particular how to adapt to a changing climate and the increasing potential for floods, storms, droughts, and fires

Building Resilience

Our bodies’ metabolism needs to be resilient (think about how we can survive for weeks without eating), and so does our grid. Resiliency is a rising focus for utilities, in particular how to adapt to a changing climate and the increasing potential for floods, storms, droughts, and fires (California’s Pacific Gas and Electric is already being called the “first corporate climate casualty” due to the wildfires in 2018).

With greater electrification of transport and industry as we shift to a low-carbon economy, we face greater risks if our grid cannot provide the safe and reliable electricity we need. Governments are realizing this and taking action. The European Union is ramping up its climate adaptation efforts, encouraging the assessment of climate change on infrastructure projects.

Utilities must engage their stakeholders on transforming the grid. Being open to dialogue and collaboration will help to ensure the grid is updated in the most efficient and impactful way. Large energy purchasers, especially those with zero carbon commitments, must work with energy providers to ensure the grid evolves to enable them to meet their goals. We cannot afford to take our energy infrastructure system for granted as we transition towards a low-carbon future.

About the author

Rebecca O'Neill
Rebecca O'Neill

Rebecca is a Senior Manager in SustainAbility’s California office. She leads the company’s energy sector work and is the Head of SustainAbility’s Member Network.

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