The Coming Wave of Transmission Innovations: Policy and Regulatory Changes for Grid Modernization

The Coming Wave of Transmission Innovations: Policy and Regulatory Changes for Grid Modernization

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the coming wave of transmission-related innovations and its implications for the electricity sector. 

NEMA President & CEO Kevin J. Cosgriff

In a vast sea of partisanship, the electrical grid is an island that both parties can agree is important, requires investment, and needs protecting.

President Trump campaigned on the assertion that the United States needs a $1 trillion infrastructure package. All of the technology in the world is of no use, however, if not purchased and put to work. The federal government can provide some of those dollars. More important, it can do a whole lot better in speeding its own decision processes, such as siting transmission lines.

How much better? Congress might usefully enact legislation to facilitate the siting and permitting of new transmission lines so that it doesn’t take 10 years to build one.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—once it has a quorum restored—should take a look at improving Order 1000 and finding ways to improve not just regional transmission planning but interregional transmission planning as well. There are also steps that Congress, the executive branch, and FERC can take—and are taking—to improve the security and cybersecurity of the grid.

When a large power transformer is damaged, it can take more than a year to replace it, because transformers are custom built and can weigh up to 400 tons. Congress tasked the Department of Energy (DOE) with coming up with a plan for a strategic transformer reserve back in December 2014. We’re still waiting for that plan. But we hope that the DOE and Congress—and the many stakeholders involved—can move forward to make sure that there are sufficient spare transformers and other components available to quickly replace equipment in the event of damage to one or more transformers.

It’s important to keep in mind that we need to balance grid modernization with cybersecurity concerns. In the wake of the cyberattacks on the Ukrainian grid, it is easy to think that we should revert to an analog grid with no connectivity. But a cyberattack on the grid is a low-probability event. The additional functionality and flexibility that connected grid technologies offer—increased efficiency, increased renewable energy integration, increased reliability—all have very real benefits that need to be weighed against the risk from a low-probability, but potentially high-impact, cyberattack.

As we think about the blurred line between transmission and distribution, not to mention new generation sources—including at the retail level—we have to think about the role that customers will play in optimizing both the distribution and the transmission system. Transitioning to dynamic rates where customers are charged the geographic and time value of electricity, rather than a fixed per-kilowatt-hour charge, will help to improve overall system performance.

Finally, but perhaps most important, the next generation of power engineers, linemen, and operators must be developed and trained to build and operate a digital grid. At the end of the day, I believe this is our single biggest challenge.

Investments by citizens, school boards, and businesses in our primary and high schools, as well as apprenticeships and community colleges, are urgently needed to make sure that the next generation is ready upon leaving school. We must insist that they have the opportunity to master the requisite fundamentals to succeed in a digital world.

Contact Patrick Hughes to find out more about how the NEMA Grid Modernization Leadership Council is working to promote grid modernization policies.

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