This piece was originally published in the November 2018 issue of electroindustry.
The U.S. electrical grid may be the largest interconnected machine on Earth, but is it high quality enough for our high-powered century? The short answer is: probably not.
Achieving this objective means we understand what we need to do and how to measure it. Frequently, one hears calculations regarding the grid’s individual parts, often in monetary terms. According to Joshua D. Rhodes at the University of Texas at Austin, the depreciated value of the grid—including power plants, wires, transformers, and poles—is between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion. Upgrading those individual parts while simultaneously keeping the grid running would cost even more.
The grid’s value may be less about past expenditures and more about the attributes of reliability, resiliency, and efficiency. A reliable grid provides power to users as needed. A resilient one recovers quickly after adversity. Efficiency means responsible stewardship and not passing wasteful costs on to consumers. To understand reliability and resiliency, we need only look at recent disasters like Hurricanes Florence and Michael. In the aftermath of any disaster, re-establishing power is a top priority.
Last month, President Trump signed into law The Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, a series of reforms to federal programs to help communities better prepare for and recover from disasters of all types. This applies to all disasters occurring after August 1, 2017, meaning it covers the storms that ravaged Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico last year and, of course, those of this year too. More information on these programs can be found on page 17.
In recent years, some have suggested sustainability should be included in the value equation. One definition of sustainable energy is an energy system that serves the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their energy needs. In popular discourse this usually gets shortened to depending less on fossil fuels and more on renewables sources to generate energy. Efforts in this direction are underway, but come with their own set of challenges. For instance, in the case of periodic sources of generation like solar and wind, systems will be needed that can store power at scale for on-call dispatch to the grid. The NEMA Energy Storage Systems Section is actively engaged in this work. Sustainability is important, but at the end of the day reliability and resiliency are what people expect the most from their grid.
NEMA Member companies manufacture and help to integrate the technology that has improved the reliability, resiliency, and efficiency of America’s power grid. But achieving a truly 21st century–capable grid is bigger than industry alone. Much bigger. Consequently, government at multiple levels will have a role. Encouragingly, the Administration and Congress have promised to invest in infrastructure. NEMA will be making the point—in a nonpartisan way—that upgrading the grid is the essential step to virtually all other infrastructure improvements. Electricity was, is, and will be how America runs.