The arctic air blast known as the polar vortex that impacted much of the country in late January made the latest case for expanded and modernized electric infrastructure to keep pace with the changing energy generation mix.
We saw forced generation outages and other generation disruptions in our Midwest footprint during those two days of severe cold. Transmission systems, including ours, played a critical role in meeting load demand by importing and exporting a diverse supply of energy generation during the event.
Specifically, regional grid operators relied on our robust Michigan transmission system to respond to rapidly changing conditions, including a sizable difference in the wind forecast versus actual, gas supply pressure issues, the loss of several generating units, and the higher load than forecasted.
This most recent extreme weather event showcased the need for transmission infrastructure that can handle a wide range of scenarios and flow patterns and allow operators to respond to changing conditions. In other words, grid resilience.
While the polar vortex revealed the value of a strong backbone transmission system, the increasing penetration of renewable energy will only raise the ante and make rapid response like that required during the event even more critical and will be of a greater magnitude. Improving grid resilience will be required to ensure continued reliability under such conditions.
Weather issues aside, a more resilient grid also is needed to keep pace with our rapidly advancing, technology-driven society presenting a multitude of electronic devices, data centers, electric and autonomous vehicles and more — representing new demands on electric transmission infrastructure.
This brings us to the timely review of grid resilience at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. However, the defined grid resilience basically involves hardening the larger, interconnected system against low-frequency, high-impact (and potentially high cost) threats and configuring the system to prevent or reduce disruptions.
ITC submitted comments to the FERC proceeding, and we supported those filed by the regional grid operators Midcontinent Independent System Operator and Southwest Power Pool and the transmission trade association WIRES. Comments submitted by MISO and SPP emphasized the important role that effective transmission planning and capacity can play in ensuring the grid can bounce back from natural or human-caused disruptions. WIRES rightly called for more proactive grid planning to create a wider range of valuable options with which to cope with future challenges while squarely benefiting electricity customers.
Transmission solutions present the most efficient and cost-effective means for addressing long-term grid resilience concerns that regional planners have accurately identified — including those driven by fuel security, extreme weather events and cyber and physical security threats.
While many utilities believe that resilience begins at the local distribution level or with generation, we think the issue is much broader, because transmission infrastructure and transmission capacity allow regional grid operators to access a much larger and more flexible array of transmission resources in order to respond to threats posed to resilience that enhanced fuel security and diversity do not address. Unless power can be delivered during emergency conditions caused by disruptions, resilience measures that only target generation or distribution elements will be ineffective.
As for the dominant share of renewable energy in the generation mix anticipated under various state policy goals, expanded transmission infrastructure will be required to maintain service reliability given the variable nature of these new resources. And since transmission infrastructure has a much-longer lead time than most energy generation facilities, the planning of these interdependent components needs to be closely coordinated to avoid the energy connection bottlenecks we see today. Energy storage solutions will also play a role in managing intermittent resources.
The challenge before us is big, especially considering the vast differences in utility/transmission owner systems due to geography, local weather conditions, topology and other conditions. That’s why establishing one-size-fits-all standards or requirements won’t work.
Every utility is different, and one’s own cultural practices around replacing and upgrading facilities and installing new technology to minimize the size and duration of outages is critical to the overall reliability of a larger regional system. The Fortis companies comprising 10 utility operations across North America, to which ITC belongs, perform in the top 25 percent in the four major reliability and safety metrics in our industry. We can all do better for our customers.
Wherever regulatory and political policy might lead our nation on grid resilience or our energy future in general, the backbone transmission grid will be the common facilitator of any scenario. It’s worth noting that new investment in transmission infrastructure required to support any future path has a much-longer lead time than most energy generation facilities. Therefore, the planning of these interdependent components needs to be closely coordinated to avoid the energy connection bottlenecks we see today.
The private investor-owned utility industry historically has funded investments in the power grid, and we stand ready to make needed improvements going forward, provided the regulatory and planning environment is conducive to investment. An improved energy investment landscape, anchored by transmission, will be the best line of defense against the next severe weather event, and the ones to surely follow.
Jon Jipping is chief operating officer of ITC Holdings Corp., the largest independent electricity transmission company in the United States and a Fortis company.
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