From Scott Carlberg

Changes in climate and your power system are on a collision course.

Some people know it firsthand: More than 40 percent of Americans live in counties hit by climate disasters in 2021 … more than 80 percent of Americans experienced a heatwave. 

Match that fact to this: 435,000 miles of the U.S. power lines are vulnerable to physical climate hazards. (Source)

So much for climate issues being just hype.

The overlay of climate change and electric supply impact customers’ wallets, homes, and safety. This is especially true as the nation electrifies with new vehicles and the demand for power increases.

What to do? An answer is pretty obvious: Strengthen the grid that delivers power. It is more than upgrading what exists now to withstand tougher weather. It also means adding additional transmission lines to deliver power from new technologies like solar, offshore wind, or geothermal.

The grid — wires is the utility parlance. That’s the transmission and distribution part of the utility industry – everything starting from where electrons leave a power generating facility.

Need more or new power? We need improved wires. (NREL data)

New grid resources

New power generation technologies are not necessarily in the same place as old power generation technologies. “Today, the Great Plains states are the source for lowest cost wind generation, just as the West and Southwest have the best solar resources. Soon offshore wind along the Atlantic will be cost-competitive. However, transmission built for a fossil generation fleet is creating constraints, delaying generation projects in long interconnection queues, and increasing costs – from greater curtailment and higher interconnection costs.” (Source)

Solar or offshore wind generation does no good if it can’t get to market. “To make use of that remote renewable energy, we need transmission lines much longer than most that were built in the age of fossil fuel electricity, when plants could be built close by.” (Source)

Who’s on first?

Who steps up first? Generators or transmission facilities? “Right now, we’re stuck in a chicken-and-egg problem: renewable energy developers are hesitant to build, not knowing whether they’ll be forced to pay for expensive new lines; transmission developers are hesitant to build, not knowing whether there will be generators to fill their lines. (Source)

The appearance is that the power sources have a head start because utilities now spend more overall on delivery of the power. See the chat below – US utilities spending less to produce power, more to deliver it. Don’t assume, though, that producing power is cheap. Consumers will see changes in the cost of power.

Learn to like the wires business

Wires are the unsexy part of the power business. Wires need to gain appeal with policymakers and customers. Utilities know the need. Old lines need upgrades to harden the system against more severe weather. New lines are needed to deliver energy to growing suburbs. Big new lines are needed to connect whole new locations of power generation – think offshore wind, for instance – to cities that need the power.

Infrastructure cost to deliver power – up from 2.6 cents/kWh in 2010 to 4.3 in 2020 (Canary via EIA)

It is easy for a policymaker to support solar, wind, conservation, or even hydro. Coolest kids in the class. All the while wires have been largely ignored.

More than 400,000 miles of marginal wires meet an increasingly severe environment. These are twin emergencies. More extreme climate-change-fueled weather meets aging – or sometimes nonexistent – grid infrastructure.

The answer is a challenge, too: A nonpoliticized, engineering-based response. Our nation may have to get to well over 40 percent of people to feel the heat to make that happen.

Check our website tomorrow for more.