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Figuring Out Best Practices for Grids and Climate Change

Todd Carney's picture
Writer Freelance

Todd Carney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He writes on many different aspects of energy, in particular how it...

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  • Jun 1, 2022
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It seems that people outside the energy and industry only know what a “grid” is because of stories of the grids, in states such as California and Texas, being pushed to their limits due to intense energy. Many environmental advocates have argued these grid catastrophes are due to climate change. To bring more focus to the issues that climate change brings for the workings of grids, several groups have released or are planning to put forth studies on how climate change stretches grids thin.

Past Studies

In 2019, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a study that argued there needed to be modifications made to grids to prepare for weather developments from climate change. The report stressed that there would need to be up to a 12 percent increase in energy production to meet new demands from climate change. The NSF said modifications needed to be made to grid infrastructure in order to keep up with the future demand.

In 2021, APM Research Lab released a study focused on natural disasters such as forest fires, extreme temperature highs and lows, intense snow storms, violent hurricanes, and droughts. It found that these natural disasters were literally destroying grid infrastructure. So it was not even a question of whether the grid could respond to the inevitable increase in demand that come with these events, instead, it concerned that if the infrastructure was destroyed, then the grid could quickly become unworkable. In response to the study, Arizona State University Professor Mikhail Chester stressed how the climate was getting more intense, and the grid infrastructure had not kept up with the new developments in weather.

The study shared how 96 percent of all power outages in the US in 2020 came from natural disasters. The report also found that half of the outages happened in the following states: “Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and New Mexico.” The study argued that the US could improve infrastructure based on predictions on what could happen with climate change, but those projections can only be so accurate. Additionally, it would cost billions of dollars to improve the infrastructure, which would inevitably increase energy prices. So long-term the better option for the protection of grids is to do more on climate change.

Upcoming Study

ComEd, a well-known electric company,  and the US Department of Energy’s “Argonne National Laboratory’s Center for Climate Resilience and Decision Science” are seeking to build off past studies like the ones above by creating a “comprehensive” report that looks at all of the threats to grids due to climate change. Additionally, the study will use the analysis of the impacts from climate change to come up with best practices to respond to the challenges in climate change.

ComEd has engaged in many practices to avoid blackouts. They have invested money strategically, so that costs have not been prohibitive in terms of updating the grid. ComEd hopes that they can use this past expertise to make the study as helpful as possible.

Current Best Practices

As the country waits on additional studies, some other organizations have come up with best practices already. McKinsey & Company recommended several key actions. One is to identify the parts of the grid that are the most vulnerable to weather issues from climate change. Then those areas should be further protected. Additionally, with the identification of these areas, when a weather event occurs, the government can quickly respond to vulnerabilities in these areas.

Similarly, grid operators should come up with models on what is going to happen with demand and production when extreme weather occurs. Such models can help inform states what improvements they precisely need to make to their grids to respond to natural disasters.

Additionally, models that look at the impact to a grid when it is hit with extreme weather can be helpful. So if some event is going to cause part of a grid to go offline, then what is the impact to the grid overall? Again, knowing this now can help grid operators be prepared for any issues.

The report had issues in being able to recommend a uniform regulatory program that could further mandate particular changes and preparations in response to climate change.

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Thank Todd for the Post!
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DANIEL SCHWAB's picture
DANIEL SCHWAB on Jun 2, 2022

Todd,

Thanks for highlighting this issue. As a follow up to this article, I would recommend looking into whether the current centralized regulatory and management models enable the necessary investments to be made wisely. Currently the model is highly centralized with only a few nodes of decision making.

This results in a backlog in the grid planning process which ultimately means we are creating a growing gap between what is needed and what is actually being delivered in terms of upgrading the grid. 

I would propose looking less at the technical and economic issues and more at how the planning process can be decentralized away from the Public Utility Commissions. In short, empower local communities (between 5,000 and 50,000 citizens per community) to take responsibility for their own energy security position and support local communities that are not strong enough to do it themselves.

John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Jun 7, 2022

The other wrinkle to this is the integration of TWs of proposed renewable resources. We need to make sure that any transmission expansion helps solve both problems, we need to take a holistic approach to grid expansion and reinforcement.

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