Updating the Outdated US Electric Grid

Updating the Outdated US Electric Grid

The US electric grid, once referred to as the "greatest invention of the 20th century," was originally built to run on a steady "base load" combination of 24-hour coal plants, massive scale hydropower, and eventually, nuclear plants. But today, this model is one that is rapidly showing its age. With its repeated failures during heat waves, hurricanes, and other climate change-fueled extreme weather -- the US electric grid is proving to be inadequate and in need of a complete transition to renewables.

Beyond climatic benefits, investment in wind and solar power simply makes economic sense. At present, they're the cheapest energy sources on the market. Unlike coal or nuclear, however, wind and solar are far more variable -- they only provide power when the sun is shining, or when the wind is blowing. In an article in The Conversation, a team of researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder highlight three ways to manage supply and demand while taking these variabilities into account

  • Use Storage: Energy storage solutions, such as lithium-ion batteries, provide backup for when wind or solar is not readily available.
  • Expand Transmission: Not every area of the country experiences sunlight or wind at the same time, meaning that peak demand also occurs at different times -- grids that are more interconnected are more resilient to changes in energy demand.
  • Improve Efficiency: Buildings, for example, are responsible for 74% of US electricity use. Improving efficiency alongside decarbonization will help to minimize emissions during the transition.

Why This Matters

When it comes to revolutionizing the grid, the US can either invest now or pay for it later. Human lives are already on the line -- this recent cold snap in Texas triggered a destabilization of the state's natural gas production due to a failure to weatherize, even after the deadly storms of the previous year. Additionally, a recent report from NOAA found that extreme weather in 2021 cost $145 billion and 688 lives. Without investment in resiliency, these numbers will only increase in the coming years.

Innovation for Decarbonization

Experts concur that the world already has access to all of the tools that the US needs to run and maintain an 80-90% carbon-free grid. And while that remaining 10-20% will be more challenging, power from green hydrogen, distributed nuclear power, and even to community-driven microgrids are some of the innovative options that could be integrated to fill in the gap.

CNBC: How The US Can Build A 100% Clean Grid, January 27, 2021.