Consumers from Texas to Michigan to California know the U.S. electrical grid is in terrible shape, with aging infrastructure, inadequate capacity for the coming influx of electric cars needing charging and an increasingly dysfunctional response to intensifying heat waves and cold fronts. Blackouts are now threatening lives from California wildfire season, to Category 5 hurricanes in the deep south, to newly frigid Texas winter storms. Why hasn’t the grid already been overhauled? And what it would take to bring it into the clean energy future?

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Why the electrical grid is out of date

In June 2022, CNN reported that power operators in the Central U.S. were warning that the U.S. electrical grid was not prepared for increasingly hot summers brought on by climate change. The U.S. electrical grid was built at the turn of the last century, back in Victorian times when electricity revolutionized U.S. lifestyles, manufacturing and business. But that means that from power lines to how we source our energy or predict electricity demand in an uncertain climate future, the grid is vastly out of date. Despite decades of incremental improvements, the power grid in the U.S. can’t keep up with the pace of change in technology or in the climate.

Related: Switching to microgrids for a clean, reliable power supply

An updated grid would need two-way capacity to both transmit energy from power plants and accept input energy from residential consumers with solar panels. An updated grid also needs battery capacity to store energy for peak demand hours such as the oncoming wave of plug-in EVs that will charge in the evening while homeowners are home using electricity for A/C or heating and powering home appliances. It also needs to function well during extended periods of extreme weather, for which the grid is currently not built.

An out of date electrical grid costs lives

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, in its seasonal reliability report, said Texas’ grid was prepared for the summer and had “sufficient” power for “normal” summer conditions, based on average weather from 2006 to 2020. Which, despite models taking into account recent years of increasingly severe weather swings, was completely irrelevant to the situation at hand.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services finally announced a death toll, from the worst Texas blackout in history that occurred during the winter of 2021, at 246 lives. Though not due entirely to the blackouts, an estimated 700 excess deaths came from the Texas deep freeze in 2021. Some statisticians have put that number even higher, over 800. The 2019 California rolling blackouts caused over three million people to lose power, which for those who are vulnerable populations such as the elderly and chronically ill can become life and death situations. And even as these disasters have increased calls for updating the grid, it has been challenging to plan how to do such a thing when regional politicians control investment decisions.

Renewable energy needs a grid to plug in to

The federal government lacks the authority to force the grid updates required to keep up with the demand from natural disasters and the new technology needed to create a flexible grid powered by utility companies and residential solar roofs. The current infrastructure is regulated by a web of local, state and regional regulators with political influence on spending. This makes quick change difficult to coordinate.

Paying for grid updates would require regulators to sign off on rate increases that would trigger opposition from consumers and local politicians. Utility companies also often fight investments in transmission-network improvements because they can create connections with other regional grids that create competition from rival utility companies.

What it takes to update a grid in the midst of climate change

To bring the grid up to date, new technology needs to be installed that allows for more consumers to install their own solar panels that feed extra power back to a grid that will need the extra juice. Rates paid for this electricity have to balance out the needs of consumers and utility companies, otherwise consumers are incentivized to create their own power and waste the rest, and utility companies can face competition from their own customers, putting the wider grid infrastructure at risk.

As much as we might like to criticize utility companies for greed in the face of disastrous climate change, we also need to acknowledge that they need enough support as businesses to be able to fulfill their function. Otherwise, there is no grid to improve, unless it becomes the property of the U.S. government, which is unlikely to happen in a democracy that disapproves of state-run utilities. Power sharing among states and regions with sometimes conflicting interests also makes it challenging to coordinate any national strategy to modernize the grid.

The Biden administration said in April that it plans to offer $2.5 billion in grants for grid modernization. This is part of an overall infrastructure package that adds up to $1 trillion. A modernized grid, according to this administration, is the “linchpin” of Biden’s clean energy agenda.

Updating power lines, weather models and grid networks

The U.S. Department of Energy found in a 2015 report that 70% of U.S. transmission lines are more than 25 years old. Lines have about a 50-year lifespan. The average age of large power transformers that manage 90% of U.S. electricity flow, is now over 40 years. It could take an investment of billions of dollars just to update failing lines in the existing grid.

And just as clean energy is coming online to fuel the grid, also ramping up is a massive demand for power from electric cars. The U.S. Energy Department estimates Americans will use 40% more electricity by 2050 with EV adoption.

The grid must also be adapted to transmit more power from remote wind and solar farms to populated areas. While this might not sound challenging, there are bottlenecks to transmitting power that can have a dramatic negative effect on the grid’s ability to shift power to where it’s needed. Wind power meets more than 75% of demand in the 14-state Southwest Power Pool that covers North Dakota to Oklahoma. But the transmission lines for this region are inadequate to the new power available from wind and solar farms in the area.

To date, no one has addressed this problem. A March 2022 report from the Brattle Group for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity found that “no major interregional transmission projects have been planned and built in the last decade.” The report blamed federal and state policymakers and regional grid operators for “insufficient leadership.”

Micro grids and the future of U.S. clean energy

So where does this all leave us? Like many climate-change related issues, time is increasingly of the essence. Some municipalities such as Chicago are taking matters into their own hands. CNN reported that one Chicago neighborhood is already making plans for how to keep the power on when the larger grid fails. On Chicago’s South Side, no stranger to being abandoned or oppressed rather than served by local authorities, the Bronzeville neighborhood is installing rooftop solar panels on public housing. Nearby, a giant battery stores energy next to natural gas generators, which creates a micro grid. Commonwealth Edison, is working with community members to make the neighborhood energy independent.

Like most issues related to climate change, we expect this to be messy. Eventually, the grid will be updated to reflect our changing times. But in the meantime, it is critically important that policymakers and grid operators update their prediction models, seek out funding to update the grid and that local leaders and individuals do their best to create backup power systems to avoid life-threatening situations for the vulnerable.


Lead image via Pexels