Reconciling Energy Goals With Infrastructure Limitations

Credit: Matthew Henry/ unsplash
  • The electric grid is under attack. 
  • America just experienced a rifle assault on a substation in North Carolina that shut off power to 45,000 people.
  • But now it is at risk of a winter strike — threats ranging from extreme cold to fuel shortages to infrastructure limitations.

With that, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) provides a gloomy risk assessment, saying harsh weather conditions will test the system’s performance this winter. 

Increase In Demand

“There’s a rush to electrification,” says Jim Robb, chief executive of NERC, during a symposium hosted by the United States Energy Association. “Twenty percent of the end use is now in electricity, and the rest is primarily oil and natural gas. If you took it to the extreme, it would imply a five-times increase in electricity demand.”  He says that electricity is 7% of the U.S. economy, and without access to it, society shuts down.

Competing forces are at play: on the one hand, the nation’s infrastructure is inadequate, unable to handle a tidal wave of electric vehicles and wind and solar plants. Conversely, the Inflation Reduction Act is now the law and will kick in $369 billion for 21st Century energy and climate projects. However, reliability remains a concern. About 4,200 nuclear and coal generation megawatts have retired in the nation’s midsection since last winter. There is also constrained natural gas pipeline capacity in the Northeast. 

“At the end of the day, we have an obligation to keep the system operational through all hazards,” says Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness for the Edison Electric Institute. 

What Can Be Done?

The United States must reconcile its energy goals with its infrastructure limitations. That means allowing the most efficient coal-fired units to remain online during extreme weather events or natural gas shortages. But the country should not slow the deployment of clean fuels and distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar, battery storage, and localized microgrids. Aggregators can monitor and manage those assets through software programs, enabling the electricity to be bundled and sold at market rates.

It’s one strategy to allow utilities to remain operational if the electric grid gets knocked out during a hurricane, wildfire, or earthquake. In reality, climate change is omnipresent. Consider that 100-year floods routinely occur, wreaking havoc just recently in Germany and Pakistan. Moreover, the International Renewable Energy Agency says that electricity costs from onshore wind have fallen by 15% while offshore wind has dropped by 13%. Meantime, rooftop solar PV has declined by 13%, all since 2020. 

Initiating Change

West Virginia may typify the reluctance of some states to move from the old economy into the new one. The state thrived during the industrial revolution, powering the nation with its coal plants. But the current century has given rise to shale gas and renewable energy, which have wiped out coal’s once-dominant market share. And while much of the country has diversified its electric portfolio, West Virginia’s coal plants provide it with 91% of its power.

Meanwhile, coal’s actual costs are “externalized” and not reflected in the price of electricity. That is, taxpayers bear environmental and medical expenses. The state’s public utility commission sides with the coal industry, arguing that its coal units are always available while wind and solar plants are subject to weather considerations. The commission maintains that it takes 3 megawatts of wind and 4 megawatts of solar to replace 1 megawatt of coal, which is not cost-effective.

Decarbonization is happening, facilitated by consumer demand and public policies. But the trend toward clean electricity does not have to be at odds with reliability and affordability. Indeed, the lights can stay on while we address climate change.

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Source: Forbes