Imagining the 21st Century Grid

It seems everyone involved with the huge transitions in the American electrical system is asking the same question these days.

What will the 21st century grid look like?  Naturally, everything is a matter of perception.  I sit in the class of folks who believe major changes are and will continue to occur as worsening climate impacts compel a major shift to a low carbon economy and a massive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. Others may take a different view, focusing more on cost, reliability or other factors.  But whatever your perspective, nearly everyone agrees the 21st century grid will be very different than the one we started this century with. In fact, the United States electricity system is undergoing more change than it has in many decades.  Many factors are converging to facilitate this shift. Among them:

  • The resource mix is being turned on its head, including a large and rapid increase of clean renewable generation as technology and renewable power prices plummet;
  • Climate change actions are finally getting launched as President Obama gets serious in the absence of congressional effort of any kind;
  • Utility customers on the distribution grid are becoming  generators of power, no longer content to simply  consume power;
  • Lower cost unconventional gas resources are choking the life out of baseload conventional power sources like coal and nuclear energy;
  • Concerns over reliability and cyber-attacks are growing in the face of real and imagined threats; and the need to contain costs as we meet present and future needs are among the most influential.

What is truly remarkable is the speed with which major changes are occurring.  In an industry that the inventors would probably be able to correctly identify many of the current era’s components, and which is intrinsically much more conservative than almost any other you can name, the pace of transition is extraordinarily fast.

This rapid change is being further fueled by the advances and  deployment of advanced power electronics, controllable and dispatchable energy efficiency and demand response programs that are transforming the distribution grid , markets, and policies; as well as information technology and electricity storage that is increasing the speed and improving the  economy of system operations.  Innovation is everywhere.

The generation sources, infrastructure technology, regulatory structures, operational practices and even time honored business models are all evolving.  Federal state and even local climate policy initiatives are moving the electrical system inexorably toward low and no carbon resources like solar, wind and geothermal energy. These generation sources behave differently than the “conventional” and dirty thermal resources they are replacing, but require more from grid operators and necessitate different system operational strategies than we got used to in the past.  Addressing escalating climate change and costly and destructive extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy have revealed an urgent need to bolster the system and improve “resiliency,” the ability to quickly restore service after storm-related or other outages occur.

New challenges demand that the system change, modernize (including increased automation in controlling it) and most of all get better.  We cannot run a 21st century grid with 1950s technologies, fuel sources and practices. The good news is many industry leaders agree this change is coming and in many cases steps are being taken to usher the new grid in.

And none too soon either. According to Mark ChediakJim Polson, and Ken Wellswriting in the July 10, 2014 Bloomberg Business Week (“A Smarter Power Grid for U.S. Utilities”):

Power outages are up 285 percent since 1984, and the U.S. ranks last among the top nine Western industrialized nations in the average length of outages, which the federal U.S. Energy Information Administration says cost businesses as much as $150 billion a year.”

The status quo is no longer tenable.  The transformation of the electrical system is not just inevitable, it is already underway.  But will it happen in dribs and drabs as the original formation of the grid did, when it was initially designed to meet localized needs and gradually expanded into a regionally-controlled national behemoth?  Or will we anticipate our needs; maximize the investment generations of Americans made in the current system and evolve something scalable and upgradable that can meet our needs long into the future?

Here are the main directions grid modernization seems to be heading in:

  • Consolidating and better coordinating control areas and enhancing operators’ ability to see what is happening in neighboring parts of the grid is one major theme.
  • Improving these operational control issues both enhances reliability and addresses perceived system vulnerabilities identified through the analysis of previous system collapses like the Southwest blackout of September 2011 is another.  It turns out that the same measures that make the system more flexible and reliably operated make integrating growing amounts of variable renewable energy resources easier and less expensive.  A cleaner grid is a more reliable grid.  It’s like feeding two birds with one seed.
  • Speed, efficiency, and enhanced coordination and control are some of the most important characteristics defining the 21st century grid. Flexibility, resiliency and security (in the face of both cyber and physical attacks) are the system’s most critical needs.

In future columns I will take a look at some of the key questions we need to answer as we design and implement the grid’s transformation, including understanding what the need to address climate change will transform the system; how a 21st century grid can meet 21st century consumer needs and expectations; and how modernization and expansion occur can at least cost and be best justified.

For a sneak peek at the answers (come on, you know you want to), take a look at the comments NRDC submitted to the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review meeting held on July 11, 2014 in Portland Oregon.  The comment can be found at:

Future columns will also explore technologies we should leapfrog over as we consider what the grid of the future will look like.

Keep in mind these are my opinions alone, and forecasting the future is a sketchy business at best.  But some things are indisputable.  The climate is changing and this change is bringing with it enormous risks that must be addressed.  The cleaner fuels we are already relying on will require adjustments in how we plan, design and build infrastructure.   And innovation – of a scale that is common in information technology, but unheard of in the utility field – is here, more is coming and it will continue to change how we generate, store and transmit energy to our people.


Carl Zichella is director of Western Transmission for NRDC, the nation’s most influential environmental organization.  He works to decarbonize the electricity sector as part of a national effort to address climate change.  


Morning Consult