The North American Electric Reliability Corp. recently graded the nation’s electric grid, determining it is highly reliable and continues to improve despite challenges that may stress it in the coming years.
According to NERC’s “2022 State of Reliability,” the network of power plants, transmission lines and associated equipment—often referred to as the bulk power system—repeatedly improved its performance the past six years.
That trend comes despite adding more energy generated from renewable sources and increasingly extreme weather patterns.
Spurred by federal policies and market conditions, a drastic decline in available power generation resources has made complex electric systems more difficult to balance. As the nation’s energy mix evolves and flexible generation decreases from sources that are fuel-assured, weatherized and dispatchable, the risk of energy shortfalls is more likely.
Despite the challenges ahead—notably weather and cybersecurity threats—improvement in grid reliability was noted in 2021 in both year-over-year and five-year averages.
The process of electricity delivery is often described as the most complex machine in the world. The U.S. bulk power system is comprised of more than 7,300 power plants and nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines. They deliver most of the electricity to local utilities and millions of miles of lower-voltage lines that ultimately connect homes, businesses and other energy consumers to the electric grid.
The electricity the power system carries to you must be generated at the exact time you flip the switch to use it. It is a mind-boggling job of high-tech coordination—and the national grid does it every second of every day.
NERC’s report underscores the success, and highlights recommendations for challenges facing the energy industry.
Coping With Extreme Weather
Given the frequency and intensity of severe weather that affects electric operations, NERC recommends shifting focus from just ensuring there is ample energy supply to putting measures in place to withstand, adapt to, protect against and recover from the impacts of extreme weather events.
Much of the NERC assessment focuses on the February 2021 event in Texas when six days of below-freezing temperatures left some people without power for as many as four days. NERC advises steps to provide more transmission connections across the country so power can be more easily shared. NERC also suggests better preparing equipment for cold weather, noting many generating units failed in the freezing temperatures.
Beefing Up Cybersecurity
Electric utilities repelled threats from what NERC called “increasingly bold cybercriminals.” NERC referred to a relatively new term for using the internet for political and social protest: “hactivism.”
NERC has established the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center that gathers information about the latest cyberthreats and advises utilities about safeguards to supplement existing cybersecurity programs.
Across the United States, electric cooperatives are working with national and local partners to fight cyberthreats and add resiliency to establish relationships, provide tools, and share resources and training information to continuously improve cyberprotection.
Increased Renewable Energy
Renewable fuels such as wind and solar are clean energy choices, but they come with drawbacks for a smooth-running grid at any hour of the day. A major downside is they depend on the sun shining or the wind blowing. They are what NERC calls “variable energy resources.”
A long-term solution may be large-scale batteries that can store renewable energy so it can be available whenever it is needed. Although battery technology is rapidly improving, NERC notes utilities should continue to rely on natural gas-fired power plants to produce additional electricity when renewable options are not available.
Today’s energy landscape is wide-ranging and rapidly changing, yet the U.S. electric grid continues to keep power flowing, providing the dependable electricity you rely on every minute of every day.
Utilities Building Resiliency Into the Electric Power Grid
Extreme weather and increased use of renewable energy are affecting the electric utility industry so much there is a new term used to talk about it: resilience.
A few years ago, reliability was the term of choice. That meant trimming trees near power lines and keeping squirrels from chewing up electrical equipment. Attention to those priorities worked. The average American’s electricity stayed on more than 99.9% of the time. That reliability record is still holding up, but it’s under pressure.
Resilience is about actionable steps electric utilities take to keep power flowing— the ability to predict, adapt to, withstand and recover from sudden large-scale disruptive events, and ensure consumers have the reliable power they need.
A less-formal explanation from the Future Electric Utility Regulation Advisory Group compares electric service to a boxing match: “Reliability is when you can take a punch. Resilience is how fast you get up off the canvas after you’ve been hit hard.”
Electricity is more important than ever to our daily lives, but weather events can suddenly take away that essential electricity. Utilities need to be ready to get back up off the canvas quickly—and that is what they are doing.
Last year, Congress passed and the White House signed a law that includes a $10.5 billion Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnership Program.
Electric utilities are building resilience through:
Coordinated, local planning. Government and utilities are sharing information to protect against the latest cyber threats. But resilience also means paying attention to regional and local differences. Raising substations higher off the ground might make sense in flood-prone areas. Wrapping utility poles with fire-resistant coverings could be considered where wildfires are a threat.
Microgrids. One idea being tried is to create small areas that can supply their own electricity during a widespread outage, using a combination of wind and solar power, large-scale storage batteries and diesel generators.
Continued modernization. Electric utilities are building power lines that connect to new sources of renewable energy, and investing in digital equipment and sensors that can more quickly detect and resolve power outages or other problems.
Decentralized electricity. Rooftop solar arrays allow homeowners to sell excess power back to the utility. It’s called distributed energy resources, which describes home generators, batteries and other energy sources. The challenge for utilities is to integrate power sources that can be variable and intermittent into the smooth flow of electricity on the grid.
There are opportunities as well as challenges. The growing numbers of electric vehicles plugged in overnight could be seen as a huge energy drain on the grid when the batteries in the electric cars are charging, or those same batteries—when fully charged—could be a source of reserve power to supply the home in case of a large, unplanned outage.
As the ways we generate and consume energy change, utilities are turning to innovative solutions to serve local communities. That’s called resilience.