Building Electric Grid Infrastructure for Tomorrow

When we think of infrastructure, roads and bridges usually come to mind first. Maybe that’s because we are physically connected to these surfaces as we make our way through the day. In contrast, electric grid infrastructure typically is overhead, out of reach – even an afterthought as it performs a service fundamental to our daily lives.

Society runs on electricity, from how our homes and workplaces operate to all manner of online transactions. Our technology-based, energy-intensive days require the grid to “be there” to support the increasing demands we place on it – and we also need it to bounce back quickly when severe weather or another event knocks the power out.

That’s a tall order for electric infrastructure that largely was built more than a half-century ago. According to the 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card, “most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity.” As for its letter grade, energy infrastructure maintains a D+ from the ASCE.

We’ve got to get going on building the transmission grid for the future. We need to force the conversations necessary to realizing the robust transmission infrastructure that’s critical to serving our energy needs today and where we’re going tomorrow. Among the top priorities are increasing system reliability and resilience, connecting renewable resources, and facilitating energy storage and other emerging technologies.

Reliability: From large data centers to our living rooms, customers are demanding reliable, cost-effective electricity. To continue to achieve the highest degree of reliability and efficiency that we all expect, we need to be interconnected to the broader, central transmission grid. And we still need a diverse portfolio of resources, energy efficiency programs, demand responsiveness, conventional and renewable low-carbon generation as well as imports of electricity.

Resilience: Making sure our grid is robust and resilient requires prudent, targeted investments to help utilities prepare for and recover from low-probability, high-impact events like extreme weather or cyber and physical attacks. A more resilient grid will decrease the chance of power outages and increase the speed of restoration for customers if the power does go out. 

Connecting renewables: Consumers want cleaner energy, large companies like Google and Amazon are taking long-term positions on it, and together with plain economics we can see our future energy landscape taking shape. The only way to capture the benefits of large-scale transition to renewable energy is to first build the transmission infrastructure that can carry that energy from rural or remote locations to load centers.

Technology inputs/storage: As the energy industry brings more renewable resources online, which are variable in nature, and it retires continuous sources of generation like coal and nuclear, these conditions create concerns around energy supply and grid stability. Emerging technology such as battery storage or established pumped storage hydropower could address this challenge by smoothing out the delivery of renewable energy through time shifting of these resources – supplementing the grid when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Meeting these modern energy challenges for decades to come will require innovative thinking, collaboration and political will – all toward building tomorrow’s grid.

Some are asking whether we need to invest in traditional electric infrastructure, considering the promising new ways we are generating and using electricity. But this is not an either/or proposition. Microgrids, distributed energy resources and other non-transmission alternatives typically provide only a partial suite of the services that a central electric grid delivers, and usually are limited to very specific and local needs. These energy technologies therefore should be viewed as a complement to grid infrastructure rather than a substitute. Transmission infrastructure is much like the interstate highway system: It provides reliability, access, efficiency and a means to deliver goods – our electricity – in a cheaper and more efficient way. All roads should lead to customer benefits.

As the conversation about national infrastructure continues, the electric grid must be recognized on par with other vital infrastructure. Much as roads and bridges carry physical commerce, the backbone transmission grid powers America’s digital economy – including the screen on which you might be reading this.

Linda Apsey is president and CEO of ITC Holdings Corp.

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