America’s Grid Needs a Major Overhaul, But Will It Come Fast Enough?

When we think about the “grid,” most of us picture electrical wires strung along our roads or across some far-flung landscape.  It otherwise remains nameless, faceless, and mostly “out of mind.” It’s only when the grid goes down that we really start to realize that, as remote as it seems, it’s increasingly central to our daily lives.

So, how is our “grid” doing anyway?  As it turns out, not so well.  At least that’s the conclusion of the latest Needs Assessment from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Grid Development Office.  This Oct. 30 report says that if we want to electrify the future with clean, renewable fuels, we will need to invest a lot more in the grid – and do it faster – to stay on a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

If you want to avoid reading the full 150-page report, the DOE has reduced it to a 10-page executive summary.  Here we’ve shrunk it down to a dozen bullet points.  

United States Electrical Grid by Region

A map of the united states

Description automatically generated

Here is what’s “crossing the wires” in the latest DOE Needs Assessment:

  • Our grid is getting older and requires a lot more maintenance just to keep up with increasingly severe weather events.
  • Our grid is getting congested:  the flow of electricity is impeded by too much generating capacity in some places, and not enough in others.  This imbalance creates energy logjams and flow interruptions throughout our nation’s convoluted transmission system.
  • Despite the need for more high-voltage transmission capacity across state lines, spending on this type of grid infrastructure has gone down since 2015.  Today, most transmission spending is at the local level, devoted to improving grid reliability in the face of rising storms and heat waves that cause the grid to go down more often.  New England leads in this type of maintenance spending (per megawatt-hour delivered), due to the age of its grid, its hilly, forested terrain, and vulnerability to line damage from wind and ice storms.

Transmission Projects in New England:  2011 -2020

A graph with different colored squares

Description automatically generated
  • New England also has developed a “highly congested” grid that pays a lot more for wholesale electricity when it’s needed the most.  In fact, 50% of the spike in wholesale rates comes from just 5% of delivery hours on ISO-NE grid.  That works out to about 40 minutes of peak-generating time that, in New England, comes almost exclusively from dispatchable natural gas.

Wholesale Power Price Differentials between Regions:  2012 -2020

A map of the united states

Description automatically generated
  • While adding more interregional transmission capacity would reduce this congestion on New England’s grid, it’s a big and time-consuming investment.  Net zero goals compound this long-term challenge by seeking to decarbonize New England’s grid by 2035, even as the “electrification of things” increases power demand sharply.  Under this high clean-energy growth scenario, New England’s currently installed transmission base would need to more than double by 2035, while interregional connections with the New York and/or the Canadian  grid would need to increase by more than 800%.  Under this high-growth scenario, about 16,000 MW of new interregional transmission capacity would need to be added on top of the 32,000 MW installed generating power here in New England. 

Within-region and Interregional Transfer Capacity Needs for New England through 2035

A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated
  • Nationwide, the grid is becoming so congested that operational changes in one state often have domino effects across several neighboring states.  This cascading effect is triggering more regulatory reviews across broader jurisdictions and leading more out-of-state utilities to request payment to help pay for upgrades of their high-voltage transmission lines.
  • As a result, the average time between an initial request for a grid interconnection and the final hookup of a new generating source has gone from less than 2 years in 2008, to 3 years in 2015, to 5 years in 2022!  Now, almost three-quarters of new grid interconnection requests are withdrawn before these new generating projects ever come to fruition. 
A pie chart and graph

Description automatically generated
  • “Non-wires alternatives” like energy storage, advanced cable and conductors, and smart grid technology are promising ways to help alleviate some of this grid congestion, but they won’t solve the problem entirely.  As the grid becomes increasingly stressed and unstable, some investments will still need to be made in new transmission capacity.  The question is, how much?
  • The good news is that the future of New England’s grid does not have to depend on more merchantable natural gas plants, which have driven big increases in electricity rates across our region.  Instead, renewable generation can fill in without significantly destabilizing the New England grid.  That assessment comes from ISO-New England, the grid operator in our region.  
  • Given a diverse mix of solar power, onshore and offshore wind, battery storage, and other dispatchable emission-free resources, ISO-NE finds that the need for new power generation and battery storage could be reduced by up to 17,000 MW.  That’s equal to about 50% of the generating capacity managed by the ISO-NE grid today.
  • Finally, with respect to New England, the DOE Needs Assessment study finds that Canadian hydropower imports should be treated as a complement, not a substitute, to deploying low-carbon technologies in our region.  Rather than viewing Canadian hydropower as a one-way export, New England’s grid should expand into two lanes of power traffic, with more wind and solar power flowing efficiently throughout our region.  Under these circumstances, ISO-NE says, existing hydropower reservoirs would act more as a grid-balancing resource to compensate for the growth in more variable generation coming from wind and solar resources.

New England Power Generation by Source in September 2023

A diagram of energy consumption

Description automatically generated

Building a Climate-resilient Grid for New England

Broadening the outlook, New England is in the middle of a tectonic shift in how it uses power for heating and transportation.  Policy initiatives have been proposed to replace building heating systems with electric heat pumps instead of ones fueled by wood, oil, propane, or natural gas.  Likewise, states are moving forward with plans to phase out new gas and diesel-powered vehicles in favor of electric vehicles by 2035, which will cause overall electric demand to increase – perhaps exponentially.

For utilities and other power producers operating on the ISO-NE grid, new large-scale generating options are mainly confined to offshore wind, Canadian hydropower and merchantable natural gas.  At the same time, these utilities will need to spend more on interregional transmission capacity to support the greater flow of renewable resources across grids, beyond what they are spending now on end-of-line delivery.  

These transmission approaches face multiple regulatory hurdles and lengthy public reviews that will take years to resolve.  Just as the flow of electricity follows the path of least resistance, the biggest obstacle to expanding our neighborhood grid may come from ordinary citizens who oppose its growth in their own “backyards.”  

A house in the snow

Description automatically generated

A more amicable solution is building new generating sources closer to load centers and reducing the need for more power lines in the first place.  

On that basis, there’s no better solution than installing a Solaflect Tracker right in your backyard!  It locks in 25 years of dependable service from one of the cheapest forms of electricity around, offers a hedge against rising electric bills (in part from continued investments in the grid!), and can even bolster the future cleanliness and reliability of the grid when it’s set up as a microgrid offering bidirectional power.

Microgrids Deployed in the United States:  Q3 2023

A close-up of a graph

Description automatically generated

Such advanced forms of net metering depend on more residential battery storage and time-of-use rates, which are coming to the market in places like Vermont, but still not ready for prime time in most of New England.  As daunting as this regional rollout of microgrids may be, it pales in comparison to those facing the nation’s conventional grid – making this “non-wires alternative” a better-looking prospect for everyone!

Solaflect Energy is your home energy management and clean commuting partner.  We offer sun-tracking solar arrays for home use and affordable off-grid Solar EV Chargers for commuters and workplace use.  Check out our workplace EV charging website for more information, or email us or call (802) 649-3700.  Working together, we can make a difference in the fight against global climate change – and reduce the cost of energy right in our hometowns.

Readers Choice 2023 Winner Color
Previous post
Valley News 2023 Solar Company of the Year