As the temperature outside neared 100 degrees, the congressional staff and other guests in the Russell Senate Office Building were getting warmed up for the transformation of the nation’s electric grid (which among other things will help us manage electricity on these brutal summer days!).
Attendees got to witness the “bang, bang” of G&W Electric’s automatic recloser in action; a visualization of Commonwealth Edison’s outage management system respond to thousands of lightning strikes in Chicago; and expert presentations from four great speakers including Siemens and the Department of Energy. Congressman Jerry McNerney from California, an engineer and former utility consultant, was on hand to make introductory remarks.
The technologies to transform the grid into a more responsive, more reliable, more resilient, and more efficient grid are being manufactured and installed today, the speakers said, and it’s a matter of awareness and policy reform that will dramatically increase of amount of this new technology on the grid.
The urgency of this discussion is clear. Extreme weather events are the number one cause of power outages. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding can be particularly disruptive to above-ground transmission networks, and such events are occurring more frequently.
The number of federal disaster declarations hit 99 in 2011, shattering the 2010 figure of 81, which itself was substantially above the yearly average of 35 since 1953.
And nature isn’t the only threat. According to a 2013 study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, attacking just nine of the country’s 55,000 substations could be enough to cause a coast-to-coast blackout on a hot summer day. Coordinated, precisely targeted attacks could cause the entire grid to collapse, taking months to restore.
So it goes without saying that electricity customers—that is, every single American—are the true beneficiaries of a modern grid investment system that rewards performance in the face of all these challenges, rather than the typical utility business model that has dominated the last 100 years.
The federal government, through the tax code, should also begin to treat the modern, software- and communications-driven equipment that is at the forefront of electrical manufacturing these days more like IT and less like the static, long-lived infrastructure of the past.
These are just some of the recommendations that NEMA will be making to the federal government via the first-ever Quadrennial Energy Review.