Under normal circumstances, the electric grid performs as it should: Operations run smoothly and technicians resolve power outages without issue. But increasingly, modern infrastructure has had to endure an uptick in extreme weather, wildfires and other high-impact, low frequency events.
The Texas freeze earlier this year caused lengthy, widespread power outages that led to food and water shortages. The cost of the winter storm ran into the billions of dollars — a far steeper price than the estimated precautionary measure expense.
It is one thing to build something that works when things are going well, but something else entirely to create something that remains steadfast through a crisis.
And crises are coming unless swift measures are taken to electrify our world and minimize carbon emissions. Mere reliability must be reinforced with something greater. The power grid of the future is one that prioritizes grid resilience — getting there won’t come cheap.
Grid resilience means the capacity to withstand externalities while operating more efficiently and with a reduced carbon footprint. Expanding our means of creating energy through solar, wind or hydrogen offers a path forward, but this can be costly for both companies and consumers. Storing this type of green energy in a cost-effective way is also difficult.
Although the Biden administration has set aside billions for clean energy projects, throwing around money doesn’t guarantee impact. Significantly moving the needle may cost even more than the government is prepared to dole out.
Juan Castaneda, a principal manager of the Grid Technology Innovation group at Southern California Edison, foresees funding issues for grid development even with an infrastructure bill.
"We need to provide incentives for funding because we are oftentimes prohibited due to the cost," Castaneda said last week at VERGE Electrify.
According to him, clean energy technologies require multiple billions of dollars in funding upfront and then more money for maintenance.
"The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get more renewables onto the grid," said Dawn Weisz, CEO of Marin Clean Energy, also at VERGE Electrify. Weisz’s company provides clean energy across four counties in the California Bay Area.
Renewables such as sun, wind and bioenergy can be replenished indefinitely, unlike coal or crude oil. But it can be hard to fully rely on renewables because, depending on the weather, they could generate either too much power or too little. This means keeping at least some non-renewables around until new technologies develop.
"We’re really trying to walk the line between reducing the amount of fossil fuels while maintaining [grid] reliability," Weisz said.
"People think that you either have clean energy or that you can have reliability and resiliency," said Nirupama Prakash Kumar, senior product manager with Bloom Energy, at the conference. "We think you can have both."
People think that you either have clean energy or that you can have reliability and resiliency. We can have both.
Companies such as Bloom and Marin are part of the greater trend of electrification of everything.
As time goes on, more of our day-to-day life will be powered from an electric socket, and less will be powered by fossil fuels such as underground gasoline lines. A cleaner future includes electrifying industry, buildings and transportation, all while integrating new technologies bent on efficiency.
But doing this on a broad, nation-wide scale will take time and money. And Bloom and Marin aim to strike a balance between making renewable energy more accessible on a community level while also decarbonizing the grid.
"As we invest in new technologies, we should be strategic and plan for an energy source that we want to have around for the next 20 years," Weisz said.
Many environmentalists have deemed electrification a necessary movement, arguing that without electrification, a climate crisis will become inevitable. But as we come to rely on a greater amount of electricity, the energy grid will have to withstand greater demand and stress.
“Severe weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity, so being able to secure the grid against significant threats, being able to manage this rapid change, it’s going to take a broad range of solutions,” said Matt Smith, director of grid management at Itron, Inc. “We need to embrace opportunities and do it in a way that delivers reliable, secure energy to all communities.”
According to Amit Narayan, CEO and founder of AutoGrid, to furnish communities with reliable power, the grid needs an upgrade. The number of electricity outages has doubled in the last 10 years within the U.S. due to the increasing electrification.
The path to a sustainable future is caught in a Catch-22: We need to electrify to slash carbon emissions, yet we risk overwhelming the grid if we electrify too soon before it’s resilient enough.
Microgrids offer some promise. These local electricity sources are attached to a centralized grid but can each function independently. Bloom Energy offers customers microgrids that allow them to maintain operations even through power outages — all done with lower emissions.
The company sees this as a long-term means of bolstering grid resilience not only for their commercial customers but for everyday people. At present, microgrids are an expensive solution for individuals, but Kumar explained that working with businesses is only the beginning.
“Our mission is to provide clean, sustainable and reliable energy for everyone on this planet, and make it affordable for everyone,” Kumar said. “Reliability is really the key to our mission and what we do every single day.”
Renewables to power the grid need to grow alongside the increase in electrification in order for the transition to decrease carbon emissions, but renewable energy is expensive right now.
“The tricky part is that those technologies are still emerging, and they are expensive,” Weisz said. “We’ll need support to become economical, just like how solar got a lot of support 20 years ago to become economical. Investments need to be made to drive [the cost of renewables] down so it can become more broadly used. We have to do something that will help us in the end.”
Correction: Microgrids lower emissions but do not bring them to zero.