The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), in partnership with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), held a briefing on innovation in electric grid technologies and the opportunity being provided by the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review (QER). The QER was launched this January to advance a 21st century energy policy that, among other things, may promote electric grid resilience. The electric grid faces unprecedented threats in the United States, including extreme weather, cyberattack, and physical vulnerabilities which urgently need to be addressed.

Speakers from the Department of Energy (DOE), G&W Electric, Siemens, and Commonwealth Edison discussed the concept and purpose of the QER and the need to reform our energy policy to strengthen the nation’s electric transmission and distribution grid, as well as the technologies available today that are making it happen.

Extreme weather events are the number one cause of power outages. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding can be particularly disruptive to above-ground transmission networks, and such events are occurring more frequently. The number of federal disaster declarations hit 99 in 2011, shattering the 2010 figure of 81, which itself was substantially above the yearly average of 35 since 1953. And nature isn’t the only threat. According to a 2013 study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, attacking just nine of the country's 55,000 substations could be enough to cause a coast-to-coast blackout on a hot summer day. Coordinated, precisely targeted attacks could cause the entire grid to collapse, taking months to restore.

The good news is technologies available today can mitigate such threats and help utilities, grid operators, and electricity customers respond when disaster strikes. The challenge is deploying these new technologies given the complex regulatory structure and financial incentives governing electric infrastructure investment.

See also E&E's article about the briefing, "Smart grid is expensive but necessary to integrate renewables and adapt to climate change."

Briefing Highlights

  • The Honorable Jerry McNerney (D-CA) spoke about his career-long interest in energy issues. While working in the energy industry he helped develop smart meter technology and brings his engineering and energy experience to Congress.
  • The biggest challenges facing the electricity grid today are meeting demand, ensuring security, and providing clean and renewable energy (which helps reduce pollution and greenhouse gases).
  • Currently, our grid is vulnerable to cyber-attacks, physical attacks and natural disasters, which can be addressed through the installation of smart grids.
  • The federal government’s role should be to give guidance to states as they develop smart grids as well as create standards for energy suppliers to follow. There needs to be bipartisan support for such standards to be created.
  • Dr. Karen Wayland, Deputy Director for State and Local Cooperation, Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis at the Department of Energy (DOE), discussed the Quadrennial Energy Report (QER) that the Department of Energy and other agencies are working on, at the request of the President, to provide a comprehensive look at the nation’s energy industry.
  • The first section of the QER, which is due out in January 2015, will look at energy transmission, storage and distribution, which represent huge sections of the nation’s energy infrastructure, require large amounts of investment, and are difficult to change.
  • The DOE has been holding stakeholder meetings across the country to allow for public comment from those who are directly involved with the local energy infrastructure and are facing regional challenges. The comments will be taken into account as the QER is drafted.
  • The report aims to create technology and policy recommendations that can be used by the federal government to improve the efficiency and safety of energy transmission across the country.
  • Kenneth Geisler, Vice-President for Strategy, Smart Grid Division at Siemens, explained how new technologies can and are being used to strengthen and modernize the nation’s grid to create a bidirectional distribution of energy. Developing a “smart grid” involves myriad technologies which are available but should be deployed much more quickly and broadly.
  • While there are many challenges facing the grid, they fall into four key categories: resilience, sustainability, efficiency, and reliability.
  • Siemens is currently working on solutions to ensure that these four overarching goals are met, and examples of their work can be seen around the country and around the world, from Virginia to Savona, Italy.
  • Policy action by Congress can accelerate these improvements. This could include creating incentives to protect essential infrastructure and prevent damage to the grid from natural disasters and cyber attacks. One such action would be accelerating depreciation schedules—some of which are 30 years, when 5-10 years for some technologies would be much more effective at encouraging investments. Efficiency and reliability issues can usually by addressed by utilities under their existing business models, but resilience and sustainability require much larger investments which private businesses are not always capable of taking on unaided.
  • Anil Dhawan, Senior Electrical Engineer, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) provided details on how a smart grid “uses information and communication technology to gather and act on information to improve reliability, economics and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.”
  • Smart metering allows for information about energy usage and outages to be automatically sent from consumers to utility companies, minimizing outage durations.
  • Since the installation of smart metering in the Chicago area by ComEd, there has been a 15 percent decrease in outage frequency, the creation of 2,800 full-time equivalent jobs, and $1.5 billion in supply chain spending pumped into the Illinois economy.
  • Smart grid upgrades have also allowed for better security to be built into the grid, in particular through the use of encrypted data communications.
  • ComEd is planning to replace all 4 million meters in its network with smart meters by 2021.
  • Erich Keller, Automation Engineer, G&W Electric, explained how Reclosers have been integrated into the grid to improve the efficiency and resilience of electricity transmission. This is an example of one technology—among many—that is helping improve the performance and resilience of the grid.
  • Reclosers have sensors that can detect faults on the line. If a fault is detected, the Recloser will reset itself several times, in case the fault resolves itself on its own. If not, the Recloser breaks the circuit to prevent damage to the grid.
  • Independent modules allow for the isolation of problems, and can be used to restore lost power in a matter of seconds, using alternate power sources, rather than the hours it can take when utility crews must be sent out to track the exact cause and location of a power outage.

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