A Year of Fire and Ice Has Proven Grid Modernization Cannot Wait

The massive wildfires darkening the skies of the West right now and the bruising ice storms in Texas this winter paint a harrowing backdrop for the discord in Washington over infrastructure investment. Frozen powerplants and pipelines caused more damage in Texas than Hurricane Harvey – underscoring how urgently we need to harden the grid on a national scale.

While the White House and Congress negotiate infrastructure provisions and pay-fors, grid modernization cannot be compromised. With hotter winds and dryer conditions likely this summer – and the next – and hurricanes and winter storms getting worse, we have run out of time to invest in grid resiliency.

The good news is we know how to do it. We know what fixes to make and how to fund them. The 2009 Recovery Act included a Smart Grid Investment Grant program run by the Department of Energy that was remarkably successful. It matched $3.4 billion in federal funding with $4.5 billion of industry investments, making America’s electric infrastructure safer and more efficient. But there is more work to do.

To keep the lights on and our communities safe, we must re-fund the SGIG program, hardening our utility infrastructure with tougher, smarter, self-healing technology.

Public/Private Investment That Works

Completed in 2015, the SGIG investment launched by the Recovery Act was one of those government programs that is so quietly successful – working just the way it was designed to – that you probably haven’t heard about it unless you work in the energy or utility sector.

More than 200 electric utilities and providers participated, submitting proposals for resiliency upgrades to their transmission and distribution networks, metering infrastructure and customer systems. By matching ratepayer investments with taxpayer investments, the grants set off a wave of grid modernization.

Over the last 12 years, those investments reduced outages and prevented blackouts. SGIG grants put technology in the field to help utilities monitor their equipment. They hardened power lines and substations, to run even in extreme weather. The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, for example, was able to restore power 36 hours faster with SGIG investments after a 2014 windstorm. Without the upgrades, 37,000 customers would have been in the dark.

The Self-Healing Smart Grid

The resiliency upgrades made from 2009 to 2015 put us on the right track, but the grid failures in Texas and rolling blackouts in California show just how much more work is needed. Without additional investment, our aging grid infrastructure will only get weaker as it approaches the end of its design life. At some point, it will fail.

We must dramatically expand the modernization and hardening undertaken in the last decade. Advanced technologies such as distribution automation improve grid reliability and help restore service faster. When utility data is integrated with advanced weather forecasts and sensors in the field, operators can pinpoint and prevent storm-related outages.

When these systems are installed across the grid, it is actually self-healing. New meters can send out a “last gasp” signal before losing power, speeding shutoffs and repairs during floods. Pole tilt sensors tell the utility that a tower is at risk of falling before it hits the ground and starts a fire. Fault location, isolation, and service restoration (FLISR) technologies can restore power in seconds by automatically detecting a feeder outage and switching customers to backup lines.

A Stitch in Time

Investing in grid resiliency is urgent, but for the bean counters weighing the costs of a national infrastructure package, it’s also sound fiscal policy. Upgrades are many times cheaper than repairs after a disaster. A study authorized by FEMA found that every $1 invested in disaster mitigation avoids $6 in rebuilding costs.

For example, Florida Power and Light used SGIG grants to install new transformer monitors. A single monitor detected a faulty transformer, preventing an outage for 15,000 customers and avoiding $1 million in restoration costs.

Modernization will protect our grid from more than natural disasters. All these sensors and automation technologies depend on grid devices and infrastructure connecting to broadband networks. These can and must be secured. The Colonial Pipeline hack, and the fuel shortages it caused in May, is a sharp reminder that cybersecurity needs to be hardened as well as our physical infrastructure. In addition to re-funding the SGIG program, DOE also needs at least $2 billion to support cybersecurity technology deployment and risk assessments for small utilities.

Then there are renewables and electric vehicles. These technologies are integral to a sustainable energy future, but unless we modernize the grid, we’ll never be able to realize their vast potential.

Sooner Is Cheaper Than Later

We cannot continue along the same path without risking further grid failure, like we saw in Texas. Americans will have to pay for grid upgrades sooner or later. When the power is off and the temperatures are extreme, we will pay any price to get it back on. And in its current state, the grid will no doubt fail again. It already is.

Modern and reliable energy infrastructure is critical to America’s competitiveness in the global economy. By investing in our grid now, before the next crisis hits, we can protect our way of life and make it sustainable for an evolving world.


Tom Dietrich is the president and CEO of Itron, an American technology company enabling utilities and cities to better manage energy and water.

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