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The viewpoints presented in this blog are the personal views of the authors who are members, associates, and friends of the GridWise Architecture Council.  These viewpoints are opinions and do not necessarily represent the consensus of the Council, the endorsement of the Department of Energy, or those of the companies they work for.
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Grid Infrastructure Challenges In A Decarbonized World

Kay Aikin

An energy transition is underway. To fight climate change as a world, we are moving to a fully decarbonized energy sector. We are shifting from fossil fuel energy uses to electrification and providing the required electricity with renewables.  

With this electrification and the integration of wind and solar energy resources into the generation mix we are encountering increased system variability. This new generation is at both grid-scale and increasingly at consumers’ sites, creating two-way energy flows more common on the distribution grid.

Coupled with this increased renewable energy, Beneficial Electrification (BE) of space heating and transportation to further decarbonize the energy sector is going to fundamentally change the electrical grid, adding significant new demands on our aging infrastructure. Trillions of dollars in investment are needed to replace transmission and distribution systems while digitizing and modernizing the grid.

Beneficial Electrification as a Solution

Historically, utilities decreased GHG emissions with energy efficiency efforts lowering their revenues although the regulators allowed them to still earn a return for providing efficiency incentives and avoiding capital expansion; now, through BE, there are increasing opportunities to reduce emissions and increase revenues. The end result is Beneficial electrification can increase revenues for utilities supporting the existing business model and decarbonize the energy sector at the same time.

Electrifying space conditioning and transportation through Beneficial Electrification by moving that energy use to the electrical grid where cleaner renewables can be deployed is a path to decarbonizing the energy sector. The industry consensus is that the energy transition with electrification of large swaths (up to 75%) of our energy system, eliminates 80% of our GHG emissions going forward. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab asserts that “widespread electrification” is essential for meeting the nation’s GHG goals.

However, meeting these GHG goals with beneficial electrification will result in new infrastructure demands and grid dynamics requiring new and innovative techniques to manage two-way power flows, peak demands, supply and demand mismatches and other new system effects of generation variability and increased loads.

New Demands on the Distribution Grid

Decarbonization with beneficial electrification expanding the electrical uses on the electrical grid will stress the system and especially the distribution grid. For the electrical industries first 140 years electrical generation followed variable load. Today and into the future, we are seeing variable load and variable generation. The greater grid will contend with many challenges during this transition including:

  • System peak demand
  • Excess Renewable generation curtailment
  • Increase load ramps (duck curve)
  • Rapid fluctuations in variable resource output

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that overall electricity consumption will increase by 38%, and many believe that peak loads are going to be 3 times higher contributing to the proverbial duck curve, by 2035 if we meet President Biden’s goal of a decarbonized electrical grid. While these effects are seen system wide on the bulk power system, increased transmission and bulk generation can handle significant portions of these effects. Power can be moved from areas of high renewable generation to areas of high demand. However, this power still needs to flow to the consumer of the power through the distribution grid, which in most locations is currently insufficient to support significantly higher demand and bi-directional power flows.

The increased variability of supply and demand increases the requirements the distribution grid must meet, including increased capacity, reverse power flow, voltage fluctuations, power quality issues, and dynamic stability. As the energy transition moves forward, the distribution grid’s challenges will increase and require new integrated approaches to grid management.

For instance, with the market share for long(er)-range EVs continuing to grow, the demand for charging via the distribution system will likewise increase. Fast charging stations increase the utility of electric vehicles increasing their recharging speeds but as few as 5 or 10 EVs charging on a distribution feeder can increase local demand to the breaking point. Addressing the challenge for local grid infrastructure such as managed charging, optimized siting or perhaps local storage is vital.

A Path Forward

The principles of grid architecture and the work at the GridWise Architecture Council can inform and guide policymakers in making this energy transition from the grid’s current state to a decarbonized future state. This future grid will become highly intelligent and interactive with distributed control, new business models, demand flexibility and Beneficial Electrification. The system architecture will provide the framework for interaction between existing and new stakeholders as well as interoperability between different technologies and systems.

The Grid Architecture methodology provides the tools, structures and ways to think about the grid to make the transition.

Author: Kay Aikin, Founder and Chief Product Officer, Dynamic Grid
Dynamic Grid provides distribution grid flexibility controls to utilities

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