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National Academies report targets needs of a changing power grid

March 19, 2021

by Peter Maloney
March 19, 2021

Congress and other federal agencies need to take action to keep pace with the nation’s evolving electric power grid, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Among other things, the report, The Future of Electric Power in the United States, said there is “an urgency to reform the lengthy electrical transmission planning and siting process.”

Among its 40-plus recommendations, the report calls for Congress to draw up and support a national transmission policy for the planning and siting of regional transmission facilities that would help ensure energy diversity and security, as well as foster an equitable transition to an economy with low carbon dioxide emissions.

The report also calls for an independent, federal entity that could take the lead on investigating blackouts and disseminating lessons learned and says Congress should instruct the Department of Energy (DOE) to create a task force, which would include regulators and industry, to identify new legislation needed to help understand how significant physical or cyber disruptions occur in the grid.

The report, which was sponsored by the DOE, also called on Congress to substantially increase the level of funding for the research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) of production, delivery, and use of electric power to help meet the challenge of providing reliable, safe, and affordable electricity while also building a stronger industrial base.

And, the report said, support for scientific research related to electric power should be doubled, and support for the development and demonstration of electric power projects should be tripled over the next decade.

“No one can predict precisely what the electricity system will look like several decades from now, but there are a number of technical advances and regulatory changes that would facilitate a variety of developments for the electric power system,” Granger Morgan, Hamerschlag University Professor of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.

Among the changes the electric power system should prepare for is the possible large increase in electricity demand, the decarbonization of the U.S. economy, a desire to reduce social inequities, concerns about the effects of the energy transition on employment, and developments in grid distribution and stability, the report said.

“It is our committee’s hope that, over the decades to come, this report will help to make America’s critically important electric power system safer and more secure, cleaner and more sustainable, more affordable and equitable, and more reliable and resilient,” Morgan said.

The authors of the report sorted its multiple recommendations into five broad categories:

  • Improve the understanding of how the electric system is evolving, which would require forecasting tools to better understand the changes in store for the system.
  • Ensure that electricity service remains clean and sustainable, and reliable and resilient, which would require reducing CO2 emissions and could be facilitated in part by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission designating a central entity to establish reliability standards for the nation’s natural gas delivery system.
  • Improve the understanding of how people use electricity and sustain the “social compact” to keep electricity affordable and equitable in the face of technological changes, which among other things would require increased attention on the part of regulators and assessment of how changes in the electrical system affect energy access, equity, and affordability.
  • Facilitate innovations in technology – such as clean energy and energy storage – policy, and business models relevant to the power system and improving the understanding of how those changes affect consumers’ behavior.
  • Accelerate innovations in technology in light of shifting global supply chains for which the report recommends that the White House establish an interagency process to review all arrangements that limit international research collaborations and make reforms to allow for greater interaction between U.S. researchers and those in other countries.

The report also found that multiple recommendations from the 2017 National Academies report, Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electricity System, have not yet been implemented and are still relevant.

To help support innovation at publicly owned utilities, the report recommended that Congress should expand funding for loans, loan guarantees, and grants for public power utilities, electric cooperatives, tribal utility authorities, and special-purpose utility districts because they do not have access to incentives provided through tax credits to investor-owned utilities and other developers.

“The report highlights many areas that utilities, regulators, policy makers and various agencies will need to consider in order to ensure a safe and secure grid, balanced by three key grid characteristics—affordable and equitable, clean and sustainable, as well as reliable and resilient,” Reiko Kerr, senior assistant general manager of power system engineering, planning and technical services at LADWP, said via email.

The transition will present many opportunities, as well as challenges, but it “will be important to have more complex modeling and simulation capabilities to understand how grid operations may be impacted by unprecedented changes in the grid architecture, as well as climate change, in order to mitigate identified risks and ensure a reliable and resilient system,” said Kerr, who is a member of the National Academies’ Committee on the Future of Electric Power in the U.S., which was responsible for undertaking the report.

Kerr also participated in the committee’s workshops and seminars, including a workshop on modeling at which she presented a case study on LADWP’s LA100 study, which looked at the investments needed to get to 100% clean energy while balancing generation, distribution, transmission, substation needs, with distributed energy resources, power flows, reliability requirements, electrification, air quality, economic development and labor.

The report said that Congress should address ways to help public power utilities and rural electric cooperatives fund measures to combat cybersecurity threats “and initiate a process to develop a solution for how to cover the costs of implementing appropriate protections.”

“Cybersecurity is one area that will require a continued focus as the grid evolves,” said Cynthia Hsu, principal of cybersecurity solutions at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and a member of the National Academies’ Committee on the Future of Electric Power in the U.S.

“The committee recommends that industry and national security stakeholders find solutions that adequately cover the costs of implementing appropriate protections against nation-state attacks,” Hsu said. “And the committee recommends funding to establish programs that provide cybersecurity training for utility staff, especially those involved in the real-time operation of electric grid systems.”

The report also recommended that the American Public Power Association and the NRECA should provide assistance in accelerating evaluations of new rate structures and other policies with an eye to how a changing power grid will affect issues of equity.