The transmission grid is aging. It needs to be updated and expanded to handle more wind and solar electrons demanded by the corporate world. Indeed, in 2022, commercial and industrial energy customers announced clean energy deals worth nearly 17 gigawatts, which is record-breaking.
Building energy infrastructure is a tricky business. Private entities have limited resources, and the payoff is often too distant. But there’s pressure on companies to meet their net-zero goals — requiring more grid space or grid miles.
“The transition to clean energy is full steam ahead, and the CEBA member community is at the helm, fast-tracking 92% of contracted clean energy capacity totaling 64.5 gigawatts since 2014,” said Clean Energy Buyer’s Association Chief Executive Miranda Ballentine, in a prepared statement. “Three years ahead of schedule, we hit a significant milestone established to accelerate decarbonization, a true testament to the strength of energy customer demand for carbon-free energy.”
According to the trade group, the companies leading the renewable energy charge are Amazon, Meta, Google, Verizon, Ford Motor Company, Stellantis, Mcdonald’s, General Motors, QTS, and INEOS Olefins & Polymers.
Information technology represented over 50% of the market by volume, while the automotive sector announced 1.6 GW of clean energy deals. In 2022, companies declared 148 deals.
However, reliability remains a concern. The Department of Energy says the transmission grid must grow by 60% by 2030 and triple by 2050. Also, most of the transformers — the device that transfers electric currents — on the transmission system are at least 25 years old. They need replacing. Upgrading the grid is also an option — or adding new digital components so that the wires can become more efficient and carry more electrons.
Black & Veatch says 60% of the country’s localized distribution lines are outdated. Brattle Group adds that $2 trillion is needed by 2030 to modernize the lines, noting that distributed energy resources can alleviate stress on the primary grid and meet 20% of peak load by 2030. “Reconductoring” is a solution — installing new conductor wires onto the existing transmission.
“While additional transmission is the recognized solution to expand the capacity of the grid, it’s going to take a layered approach of solutions to get our aging power grid to where it needs to be,” says Rafael Da Silva Ozaki, head of grid software for Siemens Smart Infrastructure, in an interview. “Software solutions can be utilized now to prepare the grid for the demand to come quicker, with less manpower, and at a much lower price tag.”
For example, the software is the key to managing variable wind and solar energies. Da Silva points to the California ISO, which deployed the Western Energy Imbalance Market to efficiently order and dispatch renewable resources. The software analyzes the grid every five minutes to determine the lowest-cost generation to meet demand at the right time across state lines.
What if we fail to act?
But the country must still expand the grid. The REPEAT Project says that if the transmission grid fails to develop more than 1% yearly, it will increase U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 800 million tons yearly by 2030. Stated differently, if the grid doesn’t grow, the goal of the Inflation Reduction Act will go unrealized, losing more than 80% of the emissions gains. That hurts wind, solar, and electric vehicles — and impedes the corporate world’s net-zero goals.
For carbon neutrality to happen, the grid needs to expand 2% to 3% yearly.
Decarbonization leads to grid expansion. American Electric Power says if the North American high voltage and long-distance lines grow by 9%, renewables will provide 40% of the country’s juice in 2030.
“It will be a collaborative process,” says Rob Threlkeld, global manager of renewable energy at General Motors, in an earlier talk with this writer. “Once it is understood that this demand for wind and solar energy will only be met with additional transmission, then utilities will be a great position to discuss.”
Innovative solutions are paramount. Can microgrids alleviate some of the stress? Distributed energy resources rely on renewable energy, improve resiliency, and reduce costs. California is building microgrids to protect against mass outages caused by wildfires. And Puerto Rico made similar moves after a hurricane wiped out the island’s electric network. Consumers want to take control of their energy usage and keep the lights on during outages.
The Inflation Reduction Act is now the law and will kick in $369 billion for 21st-century energy and climate projects. The country is on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline. But getting the rest of the way — to net zero — is more challenging.
“We need these energy super highways. But in some cases, we’re just going to have to widen the existing road,” says Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, during a symposium. “It’s an essential part of the solution.” That process takes 6 to 12 months, where building transmission takes years.”