Energy experts are still parsing out exactly what went wrong in Texas last month, but one solid fact emerged early on: Renewable energy was not the culprit. The severe storm that struck the state in February tested the state’s 20th-century electricity infrastructure, and it failed. In fact, the entire U.S. grid must be brought up to 21st-century standards in order to withstand climate impacts and other stresses. That means more wind and solar power, not less.
How business leaders can help push for grid modernization
U.S. business leaders have already begun flexing their muscles in support of renewable energy. One key development occurred in 2016, when Google, Facebook, General Motors and Walmart spearheaded the launch of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance. With hundreds of members now on its roster, REBA has quickly become a powerful driver of wind and solar development.
To cite just one example, in two years McDonald’s barely registered as a renewable energy buyer until two years ago, when it leveraged the knowledge base of the REBA network to transform itself into a leading wind and solar adopter.
Impressive as that is, huge renewable energy buys are not sufficient to fix the problems of an outdated electricity grid. REBA began with a focus on helping its members procure wind and solar primarily for their own benefit, as a retail transaction. More recently, REBA has begun exploring the community-wide benefits that can result when corporate renewable energy buyers have access to wholesale energy markets.
Now the REBA Institute has followed up with a new report that provides additional incentives for business leaders to support a modern, 21st-century grid, including access to wholesale markets.
With market access in hand, the report makes the case for applying the know-how and market clout of corporate renewable energy buyers to decarbonize 90 percent of the U.S. power system without running into prohibitive costs or reliability issues.
The modern grid: decarbonization plus resiliency
Prepared with the consulting firm Grid Strategies, the institute's new report is titled “Designing the 21st Century Electricity System.” It envisions a modern grid that is resilient enough to deal with climate-induced stresses, while also making a significant contribution to global decarbonization.
“A re-envisioned 21st century electricity system needs to be both resilient for extreme weather events and decarbonized to prevent the worsening damages of climate change,” explained Miranda Ballentine, CEO of the REBA Institute.
Ballentine also draws attention to the key role of market reform.
“Decarbonizing the power system cannot happen at the rate and scale necessary without updated market design, and that includes integrating insights and needs of customers throughout the process,” Ballentine said.
Designing a new market for grid modernization
As described by the report, the grid of today is based on 20th century technology and policies aimed at optimizing the use of coal, natural gas, and oil. Electricity customers barely factored into the equation in the 20th century, but renewable energy has chipped away at the share of fossil energy as a power source in the 21st century. Wind and solar have also opened the door for a more proactive approach to energy use by consumers.
However, as long as the 20th century grid model remains in place, it will obstruct the pace of renewable energy development, and it will prevent energy users from fully exploiting new technology that promotes decarbonization.
“The 21st century power system requires fundamental changes to achieve climate action targets, provide affordable electricity to all customers, and ensure reliability and resilience,” the report's authors explained.
The report targets several areas of direct interest to corporate renewable energy buyers, including opening up access to transmission lines and increasing transmission capacity.
The report also underscores the need to establish reliability standards and stress-testing that integrates all utility systems, including gas used for heating as well as electricity, water supply, and other infrastructure.
In particular, the study makes the case for market reform that smooths the way for scaling up renewable energy buys. That includes lowering the cost of financing projects as well as promoting long-term contracts.
The roles of renewable energy and new clean technologies
One loud, long criticism of wind and solar power is the fact that both sources are intermittent. Grid management strategies in some areas can balance wind and solar output, but a broader solution depends on energy storage technology.
Today’s generation of lithium-ion batteries can deliver power for several hours, which covers many use cases for wind and solar. The institute's study also emphasizes the need for new, long duration technology that can last much longer. Its emphasis on transmission access and capacity is also reflected in its advocacy for new developments in the area of HVDC, or high voltage direct current transmission.
In contrast with conventional AC (alternating current) technology, HVDC transmission lines can carry more power over longer distances, with much less loss.
The bottleneck is in the local converter stations needed to switch into AC mode. The report advocates for more research aimed at bringing down the cost of those stations.
A breakthrough is in sight
This technology vision is coming together. The U.S. Department of Energy has already been pouring funds into grid modernization technology, including long duration energy storage and HVDC transmission. That work intensified under the Obama administration and it never stopped during the Trump administration, despite the former president’s preference for supporting fossil energy stakeholders.
The details of market reform have yet to be hammered out, but as the new Biden administration takes shape, the prospects for a more rapid transition into the reliable, affordable, and sustainable power system of the future are already beginning to brighten.
Image credit: Hunter Gascon/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.