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New infrastructure bill can help break the cycle of grid failure

The Hill logo The Hill 9/25/2021 Mark Dyson and Justin Locke, opinion contributors
a close up of a tower: calirfonia_renewable_energy_power © Getty Images calirfonia_renewable_energy_power

The recurring news cycle of extreme weather events leading to power outages over the past several years has begun to feel like "Groundhog Day." The story starts with a hurricane, wildfire, heatwave, ice storm, windstorm or other disasters - made more likely and intensified by climate change - leading to widespread outages. Next, the electricity industry and policymakers prioritize comfortable solutions that prop up the status quo. And when the next crisis comes and leads to more blackouts, the outcome is the same and the cycle repeats.   

We can't keep hitting "snooze," rolling over and pretending that solutions that have worked for a grid conceived in the 1950s are the only choice for the realities of the 2020s and beyond. They are not. Increasingly, we have affordable solutions that leverage 21st-century technology to meet 21st-century threats.   

At the time of writing this, more than 10,000 people remain without power in Louisiana after a category 4 hurricane ripped through the Gulf Coast more than three weeks ago. Even after the immediate relief efforts have concluded, utilities estimate that full power restoration could take another week or more.   

Given the ongoing discussion at the federal and state levels around how to prioritize grid reinvestment, we have a unique opportunity to make this kind of long-lasting, widespread outage far less likely in the future.  

There are real structural challenges inherent to a grid developed in the 20th century facing more extreme weather threats every year. But these disasters are also reminders of how far special interests and some policymakers will go to enforce and preserve that same status quo. 

After outages in California last August and Texas this February, we saw calls for more gas power plants - the same plants whose failures exposed hundreds of thousands to extreme temperatures. On local news outlets, it is commonplace to hear utility executives extoll the virtues of "hardening" the grid, including undergrounding large swaths of power lines, after major outages. 

These solutions are rooted in the legacy of a power grid conceived more than 100 years ago and characterized by large, centralized fossil fuel power plants that transmit power hundreds of miles to consumers.  

Instead of simply reconstructing 20th-century grids based on old technology, we can leapfrog ahead with 21st century systems. Distributed energy - including local solar photovoltaics (PV) and battery storage - and grid segmentation create more resilient power systems and can provide reliable power supplies to critical facilities during disasters. They can also prevent widespread power outages in the face of extreme weather events, as these systems create redundancy in the network and are not reliant on fuel supplies or vulnerable overhead transmission lines.  

Cost declines for both solar PV and battery storage have allowed distributed, renewable-based microgrids to be cost-competitive with centralized, fossil fuel-based grids. We also know they can survive the harshest storms. Our team at RMI has seen direct evidence that solar PV systems and battery energy storage systems can withstand flooding and wind speeds of greater than 185 mph when designed properly. We have tested these technologies effectively in the infamous "Hurricane Alley" which runs through the Bahamas.   

This is not to say these are the only solutions, or that one solution will fit all circumstances. Undergrounding overhead transmission and distribution lines will be necessary for some segments of the grid. But this is an extremely costly endeavor - ranging from four to 14 times the cost of simply replacing them.  

As Congress considers a multi-trillion-dollar budget this fall with a significant focus on electricity system investment, we are at a decision point in how we reinvest. There is a clear choice between reinforcing the structural vulnerabilities of a 20th-century grid versus rising to the challenge of investment in a truly modern, more resilient system.    

The investment imagined by the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the Clean Electricity Performance Plan can be well-aligned with resilience goals if policymakers prioritize today's cutting-edge technologies that maximize the resilience value of carbon-free resources. State and local leaders in a position to specifically direct the investments made possible from this federal legislation would do well to ensure these investments support the transition of our infrastructure to a modern, clean and resilient system.   

The golden age of the 20th-century electrical grid is nearing its end as climate-related risks become more obvious and threatening. We cannot allow complacency and resistance to continue protecting the status quo. We have the solutions ready today to create real resilience so that communities can weather the increasing severity of climate-fueled disasters. It's time to make a change. 

Mark Dyson is a senior principal with RMI, where he leads work focused on electric grid planning and operations with U.S. and global partners.

Justin Locke is a managing director responsible for RMI's Global South programs.

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