Gasteiger and Glazer at the T&D World Conference
Wires Pjm

Is Grid Failure the Path to Urgently Needed Investment?

Nov. 10, 2022
Many in the industry say the race to reach net zero emissions and the resulting push to electrify is unrealistic and is outpacing what the current grid can handle.

Experts have warned for several years that much of the nation’s transmission infrastructure is struggling to meet current demands and is most definitely unprepared for future demands. They also say it will take huge investments to create the grid we need. Unfortunately, there is no agreement on how or where grid owners and operators will obtain the money. The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act, are a start, but provide just a drop in the bucket of the funding that’s needed to prepare the transmission infrastructure for the future.

Many in the industry say the race to reach net zero emissions and the resulting push to electrify is unrealistic and is outpacing what the current grid can handle. Others say the race to net zero is not occurring quickly enough and grid failures will only increase until the world slows climate change, which is responsible for the extreme weather events that are damaging and destroying infrastructure.

I think it’s a combination of both. I also think it’s time to move past talking and to start doing. The need is urgent. Numerous industry experts have predicted that we are just one extreme weather event or cyberattack away from a catastrophic transmission grid failure.

At our recent T&D World Conference and Exhibition held in Charlotte, two industry luminaries spoke about the barriers to a robust grid. Larry Gasteiger, executive director of WIRES, and Craig Glazer, vice president-federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, one of the world’s largest transmission system operators, discussed the risks grid operators face and the urgent need to invest in our nation’s transmission system.

Gasteiger, whose WIRES organization advocates for “proactive planning and investment in North America’s high-voltage, transmission infrastructure to support clean energy integration, grid resilience, and an electrified economy,” said there is consensus that the nation’s transmission grid needs much investment and that the current grid must be upgraded and transformed to meet future needs. “We need a moonshot effort to upgrade our infrastructure,” Gasteiger said. He went on to say that even though this is the consensus of most people in the industry, no one wants to pay for it.

Glazer agreed, and added that transition planning is hard, but even so, the industry “must avoid a quagmire of inaction.” He also added that the session was the “spoiler panel.” There was no sugar coating the message. We are at a critical point.

The two panelists talked about FERC, its duty to set effective policies that will work for all regions and its authority to bring parties together to create a common plan to ensure common performance metrics among all regions.  “We are only as good as our weakest link, so we need to look at interregional transfer capacity metrics,” Glazer said.

Gasteiger, who spent nearly two decades at FERC, agreed the Commission needs to set effective policies, but he warned that it must be careful not to enact new processes and regulations that are overly restrictive when it comes to overseeing new infrastructure projects and influencing project decisions.

The fragile, outdated grid is not unique to the U. S. Many countries across the globe face similar or even worse challenges. Extreme weather events, wildfires, changing generation capacity (i.e. the addition of more intermittent renewables), cyberthreats and advancing age are common risks for most grid owners and operators.

Geopolitical issues, most immediately the war between Russia and Ukraine, also create major issues. Russia has and continues to destroy much of Ukraine’s grid and its power generating facilities. The war impacts not only Ukraine.  Russia is restricting the flow of natural gas via its pipeline to European Union (EU) countries that rely on natural gas for power generation and heating. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU received about 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, but the country has significantly reduced those exports to EU, currently providing only about nine percent of the region’s gas supply.

One energy expert’s comments indicate that the current energy situation in Europe is causing its citizens to rethink energy policy and the race to decarbonize. BP’s CEO, Bernard Looney spoke in late October on a panel at a conference in Abu Dhabi moderated by CNBC’s Hadley Gamble. In a subsequent CNBC article written about the discussion, Looney was quoted as saying, “If I asked anybody in Europe two or three years ago what they wanted from energy they would almost exclusively have said net-zero. If I ask them today what they want from energy, they will inevitably tell you they want an energy system that works.”

The electricity grid is crucial to life as we know it. If it fails, we will be in serious trouble. Gasteiger and Glazer believe grid upgrades and investments can’t be delayed any longer. When asked what it will take to get the needed investment, both agreed that history has shown it often takes a catastrophic event (failure) to change people’s views and get them to pull together. People aren’t interested in doing that right now, Gasteiger said.

Such an event could occur here in the U.S.; however, Glazer believes there is a high likelihood that the “canary in the coalmine” will be in Europe this winter. When and where a catastrophic failure occurs is at best a calculated guess, but Gasteiger, Glazer and many others believe it is on the horizon if major investment doesn’t happen soon. I don’t know about you, but the thought of catastrophic grid failure terrifies me.

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