A clean power grid is a reliable power grid
For decades, the United States has benefited from an electric grid more than 99% reliable, delivering electricity consistently and efficiently to millions of homes across the country. But under mounting pressures from climate change, reliance on fossil fuels and underinvestment in transportation, the network is beginning to show signs of strain. Power outages in the United States are steadily increasing, with major blackouts increasing by more than 60 percent from 2015 to 2020. On average, Americans experienced eight hours without electricity in 2020, an all-time high that is more than double what it was in 2013.
The leading cause of power outages in the United States is extreme weather conditions, and recent events have shown just how disruptive these outages can be. Last September, at least 1.2 million customers in eight states lost power when Hurricane Ida hit the Mid-Atlantic coast. Meanwhile, in California, Pacific Gas & Electric has had to plan regularly transmission line cuts to avoid starting forest fires during what has been one of the the most severe droughts in more than a century. Notably, due to decades of environmental injustice in the United States, the consequences of this type of network outage disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.
Learn more about the need to improve the fairness of the U.S. electric system
Recurring network outages also come at a high price. In a 2014 report, the US Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that power outages were costing businesses in the United States dearly. 150 billion dollars per year. This says nothing about the cost of maintaining the network, which one estimate could total up to $2 trillion from 2010 to 2030 to sustain current levels of reliability.
And climate change is just beginning. The extreme weather ravaging the US power system today is the result of warming about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Without major action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on track to reach at least 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, according to the last evaluation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It could have “dramatic effects” on “every aspect” of the power grid, costing utilities and customers billions of dollars, like warned by the US Government Accountability Office last year.
That is, unless Congress does something about it. The targeted investments included in President Joe Biden’s economic plan will help strengthen the reliability of the U.S. electric system while transitioning the country to a more affordable and sustainable clean energy future.
Fossil fuels directly contribute to grid vulnerability
The United States’ prolonged reliance on fossil fuels has compromised energy reliability — and will continue to do so absent federal intervention — in part by exacerbating the climate crisis. The more greenhouse gases emitted by the electricity sector, the more frequent and severe extreme weather events will become, causing a vicious cycle of power outages in all parts of the country.
Additionally, fossil fuel systems specifically designed to operate as a backstop during power outages are, by themselves, not always sufficient to maintain grid reliability. This was clearly displayed during the Texas Winter Freeze last year, in which major points of failure in natural gas supply left more than 4.5 million customers— or about 10 million people — without electricity. Meanwhile, as record heat waves become more common, high temperatures will continue to reduce the efficiency of fossil fuel power plantsreducing their production and potentially forcing some units offline.
US power grid shows signs of strain
Increase in major outages in the United States from 2015 to 2020
Number of hours Americans went without power, on average, in 2020 (an all-time high)
Annual cost of power outages for businesses in the United States, according to DOE estimates from 2014
Estimated cost of network maintenance from 2010 to 2030 to sustain current levels of reliability
Fossil fuels cannot be the solution to a problem to which they contribute; it’s time to stop support them despite their high costs, fallibility and pollution. Clean energy technologies are a mature alternative for supplying the electricity grid reliably, because RMI analysis showed. And yet, the fossil fuel industry continues to hinder the deployment of renewable energy, impose higher costs on taxpayersand even bribe state legislatures. These bad faith interventions, coupled with the widespread rhetoric about the alleged unreliability of renewables, are another indication of the stranglehold that fossil fuel interests have on American democracy.
Clean energy has the potential to revolutionize the power grid
Fortunately, the grid does not have to remain vulnerable to fossil fuels. Study after study has found that the U.S. electrical system can maintain and even strengthen its reliability over time by meeting President Biden’s science-based goal of moving to 80% clean electricity by 2030 and 100% clean electricity by 2035. For example, a meta-analysis by Energy Innovation reviewed 11 different studies on sets of policies that would drive the United States to 70-90% clean electricity in the next 10 years; Overall, the studies asserted that the grid would remain reliable throughout this clean energy transition, including five studies that specifically considered grid performance under extreme weather conditions or high levels of power demand. ‘electricity. Repeat technical analyzes national laboratories have produced similar results, as have recent analysis from Stanford University and rigorous new modeling from the DOE.
Network managers agree. In a letter to Congress last September, 21 experts from the national network, including the former CEO of America’s largest regional grid, PJM, wrote that “experience and research show” that the US electrical system can maintain “full reliability” while achieving 80% carbon-free electricity. . Additionally, grid operators and utilities will still be required to comply with reliability standards set by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, subject to state utility commissions, and to be overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, regardless of the growing cleanliness of their energy mix. East.
Moving to a greater diversity of clean energy resources – a mix that includes at least wind, solar, energy storage, hydro and nuclear – will not only reduce electricity sector emissions , but will also establish redundancy and flexibility in the electrical system. Implementing energy efficiency and energy demand management programs can then complement clean energy portfolios by helping customers reduce their electricity consumption during peak hours, further minimizing pressure on the network at any time.
Long-term energy reliability depends on clean energy investments included in Biden’s economic plan
Building a clean and reliable electricity grid will require investment. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in November 2021, addresses part of the solution package by allocating $65 billion to extend, modernize and protect transmission linesincluding through the new DOE Building a Better Network Initiative. But this funding alone is far from enough to transition the entire US electricity system at the scale and pace required.
If Congress is truly committed to improving grid reliability and protecting communities from future climate impacts, then it must pass a reconciliation agenda that will deliver critical investments in transmission, renewable energy, storage energy, etc which are currently included. in Biden’s economic plan. For example:
- A robust package of 10-year clean electricity tax credits with direct payment and credit option will position the United States to achieve a fully decarbonized electric grid by 2035.
- An investment tax credit for regionally important high-voltage transmission lines will expand and modernize the grid, enabling an additional 30,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity, according to analysis by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).
- A production tax credit for existing nuclear energy will prevent the premature withdrawal of clean generation from the fleet.
- A new investment tax credit for stand-alone energy storage will encourage large-scale adoption of battery storage, supporting the continued expansion of renewable energy sources and providing the flexibility the grid needs to meet fluctuating and increasing electricity demand.
- Additional investments in distributed energy, including refundable tax credits for solar energy storage and rooftop batteries, will create more resilience, reliability and redundancy in the electrical system in the face of weather events. extremes.
- Investments in building weatherization and energy efficiency will ease the burden placed on the grid during power emergencies, helping to prevent future power outages and reduce consumer electricity bills.
Importantly, these investments will enable the U.S. electric system to reliably meet electricity demand, mitigate and better respond to the impacts of climate change, and provide consumers with access to forms of generation less expensive and non-polluting electricity.
It’s time to stop perpetuating the false choice between clean energy and a reliable power grid. Congress has the opportunity to transform America’s electrical system for the good of all Americans; and in the face of the climate crisis, the country can no longer afford to wait.
The authors would like to thank Dan Esposito of Energy Innovation and Russell Mendell of RMI, as well as Trevor Higgins and Sally Hardin of the Center for American Progress, for their contributions to this column.