On Monday, the White House released a new report that identifies the one of the biggest problems facing today's power grid. As prepared by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability and the White House Office of Science and Technology, the report, entitled "Economic Benefits of Increasing Electric Grid Resilience to Weather Outages," states that the grid is extremely vulnerable to power outages due to its aging infrastructure and the ever-worsening threat of climate change.
Extreme weather is currently the "number one cause of power outages in the United States," causing an astonishing 87% of outages affecting 50,000 or more people. These outages cost the U.S. economy "an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion," according to the report. And, in years with superstorms, that costs skyrockets—last year, when Superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast, total cost estimates ranged between $27 billion to $52 billion while in 2008, when Hurricane Ike struck, cost estimates hit $40 billion to $75 billion.
The problem is clear. The grid is only getting older and the weather is only getting worse. According to the report, there's only one viable solution: invest in grid infrastructure.
To make matters easier for you, Utility Dive condensed the White House report into these 6 key insights. Here's what you need to know:
1. THE GRID IS OLD—AND IT'S ONLY MAKING MATTERS WORSE
- According to the report: "70% of the grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are now over 25 years old and the average age of power plants is over 30 years."
- As a result, "the age of the grid’s components has contributed to an increased incidence of weather-related power outages."
2. EXTREME WEATHER IS ONLY GETTING WORSE—AND MORE COMMON
- U.S. has suffered 144 weather events whose cost was equal to or more than $1 billion since 1980.
- 7 out of 10 most expensive storms occurred between 2004 and 2012.
- "Outages caused by severe weather [...] account for 58% of outages observed since 2002 and 87% of outages affecting 50,000 or more customers."
- Increase in unpredictable, extreme weather events expected due to climate change.
- Occurrence, intensity and cost of hurricanes and winter storms is expected to only increase.
3. FEDERAL FUNDING IS A STEP IN RIGHT DIRECTION
- Federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were "used to deploy 343 advanced grid sensors, upgrade 3,000 distribution circuits with digital technology, install 6.2 million smart meters and invest in 16 energy storage projects. These investments have contributed to significant increases in grid resilience, efficiency and reliability."
4. SUPERSTORM SANDY SHOWS POSITIVE IMPACT OF INVESTMENT
Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to 8.5 million customers, with an estimated $65 billion in damages. However, there was evidence that grid investment could have minimized part of the damage, cost and number of outages:
"For example, in Philadelphia, roughly 186,000 smart meters were up and running by the time Sandy hit. The Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) estimated that about 50,000 customers experienced shorter outages due to its new smart grid systems, which also included upgrades to its Outage Management System (OMS). PECO observed more than 4,000 instances where smart meters were able to remotely determine when power was restored, saving PECO and its customers time and money.
In the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) said it was able to restore power to 130,000 homes in just two days after Sandy thanks to advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) deployed under its SGIG projects. With smart meters and AMI connecting roughly 425,000 homes, PEPCO received "no power" signals that allowed them to quickly pinpoint outage locations. The signals arrived at PEPCO’s central monitoring center, allowing the company to respond to customers quickly and effectively. After power was restored, PEPCO continually "pinged" the meters to verify service restoration, thus avoiding the need to send repair crews."
5. GRID RESILIENCY STRATEGIES REQUIRE INVESTMENT
Increased hardening, flexibility and control are needed to face climate change. Achieving resilience is not just one utility's burden. According to the report, resiliency strategies "require a partnership across all levels of government and the private sector to promote a regional and cross-jurisdictional approach. Because the electric grid cannot be 100% secure, the strategy must identify the greatest risks to the system and determine the cost and impact to mitigation/hardening strategies to advance the capability of the grid."
Here are six strategies identified in the report, along with the key technologies and approaches that make each of them possible:
- "Risk to the grid cannot be completely eliminated."
- Stakeholders must simulate extreme events to identify risk areas and possible impacts.
- "Utilities engage in storm preparation, response planning, and readiness exercises" but "communication and coordination among utilities" is also key.
- "Upgrading [both T&D] poles and structures with stronger materials constitutes a primary hardening strategy."
- Vegetation management programs "help prevent damage to T&D infrastructure."
- Putting power lines underground can prevent damage from wind, lightning and vegetation but costs are higher, repairs take longer and underground lines in coastal areas are far more vulnerable to flooding.
- "Common hardening activities to protect against flood damage include elevating substations and relocating facilities to areas less prone to flooding. [...] Replacing a T&D facility is far less expensive than building and maintaining flood protection."
Improving System Flexibility and Robustness
- "Additional transmission lines increase power flow capacity and provide greater control over energy flows," increasing flexibility and reducing "the risk of cascading failures."
- Energy storage helps to balance loads, regulate the frequency of electricity, integrate renewable energy resources and improve system stability.
Increase Visualization and Situational Awareness
- Smart meters help utilities know when customers lose power and, more importantly, "pinpoint outage locations more precisely."
- "Synchrophasor technology, derived from phasor measurement units (PMUs), is used within the transmission system to provide high-fidelity, time-synchronized visibility of the grid. PMUs enable operators to identify reliability concerns, mitigate disturbances, enhance the efficiency/capacity of transmission system, and help manage islanding during emergency situations."
Deploy Advanced Control Capabilities
- Automated feeder switches can reroute power to prevent or minimize faults from causing widespread outages:
"One recent example involves EPB of Chattanooga who estimated that power outages resulted in an annual cost of $100 million to the community and installed automated fault isolation and service restoration technology. During a July 2012 wind storm, automated switching in the distribution system instantly reduced the number of sustained outages by 50 percent to 40,000 customers. When coupled with information on customer outage provided by meters, the utility was able to avoid 500 truck rolls and reduce total restoration time by 1.5 days, representing almost $1.5 million in operational savings and significant avoidance of costs to customers."
Availability of Critical Components and Software Systems
- "Installing equipment health sensors can reveal possibilities for premature failures."
- "Actions may include taking equipment offline, transferring load to alleviate stress on critical components, or repairing equipment. Understanding equipment condition allows utilities to undertake predictive and targeted maintenance. As a result, utilities can employ asset management strategies that lead to greater availability of critical components."
6. CASE FOR INVESTMENT BOLSTERED BY NON-OUTAGE BENEFITS
Here are a few of the non-outage benefits for grid investment enumerated in the report:
- Grid investment improves "overall effectiveness of grid operations leading to greater efficiencies in energy use with accompanying reductions in carbon emissions."
- Investment beefs up defense against cyberattacks on the power grid.
IN CONCLUSION, GRID INVESTMENT IS NEEDED TO FACE CLIMATE CHANGE
"The U.S. electric grid is highly vulnerable to severe weather. This report estimates the average annual cost of power outages caused by severe weather to be between $18 billion and $33 billion per year. In a year with record-breaking storms, the cost can be much higher. For example, weather-related outages cost the economy between $40 billion and $75 billion in 2008, the year of Hurricane Ike. These costs are expected to rise as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and other extreme weather events.
Preparing for the challenges posed by climate change requires investment in 21st century technology that will increase the resilience and reliability of the grid. The Recovery Act allocated $4.5 billion for investments in smart grid technologies.
A multi-dimensional strategy will prepare the United States for climate change and the increasing incidence of severe weather. Developing a smarter, more resilient electric grid is one step that can be taken now to ensure the welfare of the millions of current and future Americans who depend on the grid for reliable power."
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