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The All Hazards Approach to Grid Modernization

Resilience hazards for electric power systems are on the rise, exacerbated by both a rise in extreme weather events and manmade physical and cyber attacks. At the same time, grid modernization challenges plague the United States, covering everything from increased electrification and ambitious renewable energy targets to aging infrastructure and regulation that lags behind today’s challenges. An all-hazards risk based approach is needed to address both rising resilience and grid modernization challenges.

In a talk for the Iowa State University Electric Power Research Center in October 2023, I gave a talk discussing my thoughts on this broad issue. You can see the slides for that talk here.

So what are the challenges of grid modernization and how to we address them?

Aging Infrastructure

I won't try to justify selecting aging infrastructure as the place to start, but it is a place to start. The United States has one of the oldest power grids in the world. Many of the components still in service have long outlasted their intended lifetimes. It is too expensive and time consuming to replace all outdated infrastructure, so we continue to rely on what's there for as long as it's operational. In addition to risks of failed equipment, this also drives a need to maintain backwards compatibility with older systems.

Greenhouse Emissions

One consequence of the aging infrastructure we use is larger greenhouse emissions, although the power grid is certainly not the only contributing factor. Less efficient synchronous machines continue to provide baseline generation, although policy has been efficient at driving retirement of coal units over the last decade.

Increased Renewable Energy Deployments

Greenhouse gas emissions and other factors contribute to climate change, which is a driving force behind target for increased renewable energy deployments. We face challenges of making these technologies more efficient and cost effective. The growth of renewables also creates an opportunity to address the aging infrastructure challenges, but comes with its own set of challenges for deployment.

Increasing Frequency of Extreme Weather Events

Another side effect of the increased greenhouse gasses and associated climate change is increased frequency of extreme weather events, stressing the grid and operators with more events that are traditionally considered to be high impact, but low frequency. This drives a need for better resilience to be built into our modernization plans.

Increased Electrification

To add to the stress on the grid, we continue to see load growth, driven by many factors including increased electrification. Retirement of gas for household appliances (like heating and cooking) in favor of electric appliances, commercial and residential electric vehicles, and even industrial applications contribute to the growth of power needs, along with high intensity computing operations like crypto-mining and training large machine learning models.

Transmission Queues

The addition of bulk renewables and additional load requirements drive transmission queues that can take a long time to get through. Policy changes may be critical to ease transmission queueing delays. While these delays slow needed upgrades, the grid can be more susceptible to resilience hazards.

Rising Cyberattacks

To add to all the challenges already discussed, rising digitization of equipment, distributed generation and remote communications, and advanced computing algorithms create a cyber attack surface that adversaries are easy to take advantage of.

Putting this all together creates quite a web of challenges, opportunities, and risks to mitigate. An all hazards approach is required to address these risks is a wholistic manner.

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