- Utilities are expected to make $1 trillion in electric system upgrades across the next decade, and a new report from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) frames this as an opportunity to "reimagine grid resilience" by rethinking upstream investments and focusing outage prevention and restoration upgrades "as far downstream as practical."
- An accelerating shift away from centralized generation and toward customer-sited distributed energy resources (DERs) has the potential to mitigate linear dependence and cascading failures inherent in the existing power system, according to RMI.
- However, proliferation of DERs could also create more opportunities for hackers to cause grid disruptions, according to security experts. "Many if not most DERs are installed by third parties and developers that may not make grid resiliency and cybersecurity a priority," Shawn Wallace, vice president of energy at cybersecurity firm IronNet, told Utility Dive in an email.
The number of power outages is increasing, RMI's report points out, as the electric grid grows more complex and threats evolve.
"Emerging human-made threats and natural disasters are compounding the risk of catastrophic, long-term outages across the power grid and the economy it supports," RMI said.
The report considers the potential for cyber and physical grid attacks, natural disasters and extreme weather, and points out that the technologies reshaping the grid are creating resilience opportunities as well as openings for disruption.
The shift from coal to gas-fired generation "tends to reinforce the grid’s linear value chain and associated vulnerabilities," RMI said. Looking at transmission and distribution upgrades, the report finds grid hardening and modernization can "mitigate physical risks, improve visibility and flexibility of the system, and support integration of distributed energy resources."
And the growth of those DERs allows for "for end user-focused strategies to mitigate upstream risks."
The resilience report lays out 11 recommendations structured around four principles: addressing the linear dependencies created by a centralized generation system; leveraging market forces to deploy technology solutions; prioritizing the restoration of critical loads; and getting full value from resilience investments.
Distributed resources are not the only way to strengthen the grid. Blackstart-enabled generation, more efficient and autonomous transmission grids, and a more efficient distribution system, can all boost resilience, according to the report. But the rise of customer-sited generation and energy storage could play a major role in keeping critical facilities online.
With that, however, comes potential vulnerabilities, say experts.
"The industry needs to continue to take a balanced approach. There will be a need for high voltage transmission to bring power from central generators to load centers," IronNet's Wallace said.
One of the biggest advantages of the central generation model is on-site fuel storage, he said.
"By moving to a local DER model, you are exchanging risks associated with central generation and long transmission infrastructure for local resources that may not have the capacity to meet local needs," Wallace said. "Your fuel supply risk increases while your transmission infrastructure risk decreases."
Federal regulators are considering strengthening security rules surrounding DERs. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has published a notice of inquiry on cybersecurity issues, including how "a coordinated cyberattack on geographically distributed targets" could disrupt the grid and potential measures to counter the threat.
Wallace said increased DERs can create more opportunities for hackers to disrupt the grid, and must be paired with energy storage to maximize the resource's benefits.
With increasing distributed resource deployments, "the potential attack surface is increasing but the inability to store fuel or energy may be a greater concern. Without storage the effect on resiliency will be lost."
The balance between DERs and the greater attack surface "is a nuanced point," RMI principal and report author Mark Dyson told Utility Dive.
"The argument we're trying to make here is there's any number of emerging or existing threats that could disable any component of the grid," Dyson said. "So any intervention as close to the customer as possible that can improve recovery is going to be more useful."