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As the Electric Grid Evolves, Reliability and Resilience Are Top Priorities

How to keep the lights on as demand rises and extreme weather events become more frequent and severe.

By Alex McWard  |  January 17, 2024

In recent years, severe weather events have become more frequent and more extreme. Since 2015, the U.S. has experienced on average at least one disaster each month that has caused at least $1 billion in damages. This trend seems likely to continue due to record-breaking floods and heat waves.

The energy sector is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events. Extreme flooding or winter storms can damage energy infrastructure, thus affecting the energy supply. Certain weather events, such as heat waves, can cause a surge in energy use, creating greater demand on the grid. The increased demand can lead to blackouts that threaten the grid’s reliability and resilience. While reliability is the grid’s capacity to avoid power disruptions, resilience is its ability to withstand and quickly recover from power outages.

The grid is being stressed not only by increasingly frequent sever weather events, but also by increasing electricity demand. The building and transportation sectors are experiencing electrification as the increasing popularity of electric vehicles and home appliances creates greater residential demand.

“We must coordinate on a comprehensive transition plan, including ensuring timely generation and transmission.”

—Andre Porter, Midcontinent Independent System Operator

As consumption patterns evolve, the energy production system is in the process of decarbonization nationwide. Fossil fuel-based energy resources are gradually being replaced by clean energy alternatives as states implement clean energy goals and standards that will shift the energy supply over the next few decades.

Andre Porter, general counsel for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the electric grid operator for the U.S. Midwest, told a session at NCSL’s 2023 Legislative Summit that grid transition poses the biggest risk for system reliability. The production of certain renewable resources, such as wind and solar, can vary due to weather conditions. And, while new renewable and energy storage projects are being deployed, the retirement of fossil fuel sources has raised concerns about supply shortages and reliability during high-demand periods, Porter says. Along with reliability, grid resilience is crucial during the transition.

Aidan Tuohy, a senior program manager with the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, whose members include electric utility companies, businesses and government agencies, told Summit attendees that creating a reliable energy supply goes beyond installing more megawatts. “The capacity must have energy to sustain during critical time periods, flexibility to accommodate condition changes, and sufficient reliability services to provide (power) when necessary,” he says. An adaptable grid can deliver energy from unaffected regions to areas experiencing outages to quickly restore power and limit the impact of interruptions.

To achieve this, Porter says, “we must coordinate on a comprehensive transition plan, including ensuring timely generation and transmission.” Increasing the scalability of electric transmission infrastructure is necessary to deliver power across various locations to meet unprecedented new load demands. Additionally, expanding access to distributed resources, such as battery storage and rooftop solar, improves resilience by providing on-site electricity during grid outages.

With the clean energy transition already underway in many states, considering a comprehensive transition plan is critical for policymakers to achieve a reliable and resilient grid.

Alex McWard is a policy associate in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

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