The Grid Is Not Ready for a New Revolution
You can almost listen to the electricity flowing and moaning under the weight of the future, as the two forces come together to push it-often literally-to break it.
One force is climate change, which could exacerbate disasters that will erode parts of the grid, as Hurricane Ida did this summer, tapping in New Orleans offline as a the heat wave settled. Or severe weather can suddenly arouse the need for energy when the grid is less able to supply it, such as weather cold in Texas last winter and subsequent failure of the electrical system.
The other force, quite ironically, is the mass transmission of renewable power-the best way to combat climate change and avoid these disasters. But it will require a fundamental rethinking of how the grid operates. Fuel and coal-fired power plants produce continuous energy by burning fuel, and how much they burn can be modulated based on electricity demand. But solar and wind energy generation is changing. The sun does not shine at night, and the turbines do not turn without wind.
This can create a mismatch between demand and supply. Imagine there is a wave of heat. You get home from work at 6pm and your house crashes, so you turn on the AC. The problem is that everyone does that too. This is the time of day when people use more energy, when they come home from work and start cooling their homes, cooking, and running washers and laundry.
But at 6 p.m., the sun would set, and the solar panels would provide no energy. And the wind could stop blowing at any hour, leaving a gap between demand and generation. (Utilities ’abilities to load giant batteries with solar power in the morning and store it when customers need it are even more powerful now quite limited yet.)
This puts a lot of pressure on the grid, which needs to be in constant balance. The equipment has sophisticated systems for predicting when demand will increase, so on most days this is not a problem. They can buy more power from neighboring equipment if needed. Or, they can strike a balance by burning a lot of fossil fuels – but that, of course, emits a lot of carbon. But if there is an unexpected increase in demand and the utility lacks the necessary power, the balance must be restored by cutting demand – along with blackouts.
As renewable sources take up the energy mix, equipment cannot easily absorb additional supply by burning fossil fuels. That’s how a future grid that runs regularly doesn’t take long to provide energy from innovations that need to pay off much more quickly.
University of Southern California environmental engineer Kelly Sanders, who studies how the grid evolves, is examining a strategy called precooling, in which home users access AC early in the day when the grid buzzes with the clean energy of the sun. In fact, they will shift the high demand from the quick return home. “You can get more electricity customers to use more electricity without the sun, and after pouring that use into the sunset, it’s better to align our behavior with the availability of wind and solar,” he said. Sanders.
The same principle applies to heating. In some of the colder areas of the U.S., winter demand spikes at 6 or 7 a.m., when people are already waking up to frozen homes. Here people can start heating their homes at 4am. Sanders envisioned that local officials could also change the operation of critical infrastructure to accommodate the availability of renewable energy-perhaps a region would spend on its drinking water treatment if available. solar power.