Transforming the Grid Is Essential for a Safe Climate Future

johnmoore_chicago-0872_450October 11, 2017 by John Moore, Director, The Sustainable FERC Project

This is part of a series of blogs on NRDC’s new report, “America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Future,”

A safer climate future will require that the United States cut climate pollution by at least 80 percent by 2050. Doing so will require a modern, responsive, and integrated power grid, according to America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Futurea new report based on comprehensive modeling by NRDC and the well-respected consulting firm Energy + Environmental Economics (E3). The report charts a course to this goal through high levels of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other sustainable, zero-carbon solutions.

Our current power grid is ill-suited to support our nation’s path to a clean energy future. It originally was designed to support large fossil power plants near cities. To integrate high levels of wind and solar energy, power electric vehicles, and “decarbonize” our homes and businesses, our electric grid needs to expand and modernize, making it smarter and more secure. That’s less complicated than you might think, and we have the technical and policy tools to do it now.

Expand the grid: markets and transmission

More renewable energy can be added to the grid if we expand and better connect regional electricity markets and grid planning regions. Transforming the West’s currently fragmented grid into an integrated, regionalized one would help lower electric bills and improve reliability while accommodating more clean energy. Creating this market will require leadership from all levels of government, state regulators, grid operators, and utilities.

Beyond the West, a more integrated national grid will also require power lines that can efficiently ferry wind energy over long distances from rural areas to population centers. Upgrading the transmission system could help the U.S. electric system integrate up to 55 percent wind and solar energy in 2030, according to a study released last year by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado-Boulder. Looking further into the not-so-distant future, we can get at least 80 percent of our power from renewable sources—solar, wind (land-based and offshore) and hydropower—by 2050.

Importantly, despite myths to the contrary, we can move to these high levels of renewable energy while improving the strength of the electricity grid. The current shift toward clean energy is benefiting consumers and bolstering the grid’s resilience, a fact utterly ignored in the Department of Energy’s desperate and radical plan to bail out costly coal and nuclear power.

Make the grid more local: rooftop solar and other distributed resources

The nation’s scale-up of clean power doesn’t need to come solely from massive solar and wind farms—although they will be important. Adding millions of solar-powered rooftops, electric cars, and batteries will also be critical. These distributed energy resources (DERs) can generate surplus energy and inject it into the grid when it’s needed. Many of these resources also can provide grid reliability services.

This potential extends across many systems that already exist in homes and businesses. Smart water heaters in homes and businesses, for example, can respond to signals from grid operators on when and how to draw power. At factories, automated controls can help shift energy-intensive manufacturing processes to shave demand without affecting product output. Utilities, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (which regulates the high-power grid), state utility commissions, and grid operators can all help to accelerate the use of DERs into the grid.

The sharing economy has already revolutionized the way we hail rides or book rooms for a vacation—now that same concept is beginning to take root on the grid, where homeowners and businesses essentially become active players in the electricity market.

Modernize the grid: smarter technology, better business models

A low-carbon future will require utilities, grid operators, and others to make substantial investments in grid upgrades. Those include new transmission technologies, advanced metering equipment, and electric vehicle charging stations.

Markets also will need to change. For example, homeowners need painless access to markets to sell power and services from demand response (being paid to reduce electricity use when demand is high), rooftop solar, and electric cars. States need to develop 21st-century business models that reward utilities for promoting these resources as well as energy efficiency, rather than pursuing higher energy sales for themselves. (See also: A Vision for the Future of the Electric Industry to learn more about forward-thinking utility business strategies.)

In short, modernizing the power grid will require us to develop new electricity markets and innovative retail rate structures to maximize the use of grid-connected devices. It also will require more nimble monitoring and forecasting of renewable energy resources to improve their grid integration.

Finally, grid investments should always focus on renewable resources and energy efficiency first. As the world moves toward clean energy, over-investing in fossil fuel power generation risks saddling the U.S. economy with stranded assets and needless costs while undercutting action on climate change.

None of these steps needs to wait for a big research breakthrough. The technology is already there. By investing in a modernized, robust electric grid, we can cost-effectively steer away from the worst effects of climate change and move the U.S. toward a stronger clean-energy-driven economy.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

Written by John Moore