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How to prepare the U.S. electric grid for more extreme weather

electric workers repair aboveground power lines
Workers repair the electrical grid after Hurricane Michael on October 16, 2018 in Panama City, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With extreme weather here to stay, from recent heat waves to unseasonable Thanksgiving cold snaps, drastic temperature swings will continue to wreak havoc on the U.S.’ antiquated electricity grid.

Why it matters: In 2017 alone, power outages affected more than 36 million Americans — more than double the 17.9 million who were affected in 2016. Blackouts of all magnitudes have been estimated to cost the U.S. economy between $104 billion and $164 billion per year.

Modernizing the grid will require a holistic approach:

Generation: While fossil-fuel plants need to be large and central, renewable generation is more flexible and its infrastructure can be placed almost anywhere — from solar panels on rooftops to wind farms on open pastures.

  • Smart infrastructure placement can drive generation into the grid where it’s needed most, lessening stress on large and often outdated grids.

Storage: Batteries can store excess energy that renewables produce when demand is low and then come online when demand spikes, boosting the reliability of the energy supply and alleviating disruptions.

  • To maximize efficiency, new utility-scale generation projects should be paired with storage. While cost has long been the major hurdle for energy storage adoption, lithium-ion battery prices have declined nearly 80% since 2010, and progressive states like Massachusetts are offering additional incentives for customers to pair batteries with onsite solar.

Consumption: In the same way cell phone customers monitor data usage to stay within plan limits, energy consumers are being made more aware via digital engagement tools throughout the grid.

  • Some companies have opted into demand-response programs, in which they lower their energy use during high-cost, peak-demand periods in exchange for financial incentives.
  • This load management — or “peak shaving” — commitment, combined with battery storage advances, would enable utilities and grid operators to switch to stored power during pricing spikes or system emergencies, reducing the need for additional power plants to come online (a process that entails significant upfront costs, so even a small amount of power can come at a high price).

What to watch: The grid's precariousness has attracted the attention of a bipartisan group of 18 governors — the Governors' Wind & Solar Energy Coalition — who in a recent letter urged the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to help integrate and modernize the nation's power grids.

Michael Storch is president and CEO of Enel X North America.