The nation’s energy mix is changing as we shift from a world electrified by fossil fuels to one powered by renewable energy. A change in how we generate electricity is necessary if we hope to meet the current administration’s goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030 and having a fully net-zero economy by 2050.
But we must overcome some challenges for the transition to clean energy to be successful.
Perhaps one of the biggest deals with transmission.
A new transmission model
The country’s current transmission infrastructure is set up like a hub and spoke. Fossil fuel-powered generation plants are typically located near load centers with the electricity then distributed to local or regional customers. Experts believe that with renewable energy sources, this model will become obsolete. Renewable generation is often cited at the best location for the resource — along the coasts and in the Great Plains for wind and in the southwestern U.S. for solar.
Certainly, we can generate solar energy in places like the upper Midwest, even though the region tends to see more cloudy than sunny days over the course of the year, but it’s not as efficient. A solar array in Michigan simply won’t generate as much electricity over a year as the same size array in Arizona. That’s why experts also agree that utilities won’t be able to meet the increased demand for electricity with in-state renewable resources alone. The future will likely be a blend of local renewable generation and a network of long-distance high voltage transmission lines to bring renewable energy in from other states.
Unfortunately, most transmission lines are more than 40 years old, and many are already congested. These lines can only handle so many electrons at once before reliability suffers. Exceeding that capacity can result in line loss and outages. In some locations, the existing infrastructure can’t handle the energy generated by distributed renewable energy sources today, let alone what’s to come. For example, the country needs to add 9.6 million electric vehicle charging ports by 2030 to support the EV market. Demand for electricity will increase exponentially over the next decade as more segments of the economy electrify.
To kickstart the process of modernizing our transmission infrastructure, the Department of Energy recently launched its “building a better grid” initiative. The program earmarks $20 billion in funds to develop and upgrade high-capacity, long-distance electric transmission lines, and facilities across the country.
Other transmission challenges
Of course, overhauling the transmission infrastructure to support renewables isn’t as simple as stringing wires. Here are a few of the other challenges the industry and federal government will need to overcome:
- Smarter, faster controls are needed to deal with the fluctuations inherent with renewable generation.
- Increased coordination will be needed around planning, siting, and permitting. The seven Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) / Independent System Operators (ISOs) will need to work with federal, state, and local governments because these new transmission lines will likely cover multiple jurisdictions.
- Other stakeholders will also need to be engaged during the planning and siting process. Some environmental groups have already expressed opposition to interstate transmission plans.
- And then there’s the question of Texas, which is an energy island unto itself. What role, if any, will the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) play in long-distance transmission?
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has funds set aside to help address some of these planning, siting, and permitting issues. In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently proposed to address some of the issues with the current regional transmission planning and cost allocation process.
Clearly, there’s recognition at the federal and industry level that solving the transmission problem is a key part of decarbonizing the grid.
Interested in more news on renewable energy? Check out “4 Types of Renewable Energy Transforming the Grid” on the PCI blog.