“Transmission, generally, is a bipartisan issue.”
That hopeful note on the national energy grid, specifically the need to fortify, improve, and expand it so Americans can efficiently get the energy they need – and in the midst of all the rancor about what the president’s infrastructure bill will or will not ultimately encompass – comes from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
The reason there seems to be bipartisan support on the grid is in part, he said, because regardless of party affiliation, Americans have come to rely on being able to access the energy we need.
“The biggest priority right now is trying to secure an investment tax credit for infrastructure – transmission lines in particular. There’s such long lead time and it’s expensive,” he said.
Heinrich said that because these projects have such costs and time built into their development, any incentive and certainty government can give industry is imperative.
“People expect the grid to work. You flip a switch and the lights come on, you turn on flip the thermostat and the air conditioning is supposed to come on,” he said.
Making sure that is always the case, made more complicated by all the new energy sources that will soon travel the grid, was the topic of a recent GE-sponsored Axios event on the transmission of energy, it’s resilience, sustainability – and reinvention.
Heinrich, New Mexico’s senior senator, along with GE Digital Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Colin Parris; New York Power Authority President and CEO and GridWise Alliance Chair Gil C. Quiniones and its CEO Karen G. Wayland joined Axios’s Andrew Freedman and Ben German to talk about the reliability, capacity and safety of getting energy to where it needs to go.
The nation’s power grid, made up of more than 7,300 power plants, nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers, connects millions of customers and will need nothing short of a complete overhaul if it is to satisfy a nation thirsting for energy, as well as all the new kinds of energy that will traverse it.
Incentivizing Green Energy
“We really need to reinvest in our grid because we’re going to actually have a lot more electricity on the grid 10 years from now than we do now,” said Heinrich, who is on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Energy and the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
To support and encourage that will take a combination of both investment opportunities, by way of tax cuts, and also point of sales rebates – the latter of which will make the biggest impact on struggling homeowners.
How do we de-carbonize? How do we swap out those machines for electrically-driven machines, especially in the home?
Heinrich said that by “shifting from tax credits to point of sale rebates and to do it broadly across the economy, so those in all income levels can benefit, whereas tax credits tend to incentivize the top of the market.”
Specifically, he spoke about those homes constructed decades ago and how the service panels in those structures are not big enough to handle the quantity or variety of electricity, once appliances like induction stoves and more efficient hot water heaters, even electric vehicles, are added to the mix.
There is, he believes, broad agreement on the general philosophy of doing that. What is more partisan, however, is the notion of a clean energy standard requiring that electricity comes from non-emitting or low-emitting sources – the president’s net zero emission goals being at the forefront of that.
Connectivity and Continuity
For his part, GE Digital Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Colin Parris said that with new energy sources coming on line, it is important to first understand the language we use to describe the landscape.
“The grid,” he said, “is about two things: connectivity and continuity.”
Connectivity, he said, is connecting generation to consumption, from a power plant to homes or businesses, and continuity is about always ensuring the nation has a constant flow of electrons, meaning, “When you turn that switch on, you’ve got power.”
When we have both, he contends, we have a stable grid.
The challenge now is that the grid is becoming, in a manner of speaking, “more temperamental.” Where it was once a one-lane street, going from generation to consumption, it is now multiple lanes and off-ramps, flowing in both directions – and the lanes and layout of the system is getting more complicated and interwoven as the days progress.
“We’re adding generation sources, like renewables, and wind, which is always dynamic because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow,” said Parris.
On the consumption side, he noted, we are putting, for example, solar panels on our roofs and electric cars in our driveways. With both generation and consumption protocols changing simultaneously, finding a way to make the grid stable again will be the goal.
Part of that goal will be keeping it safe and secure from cyber-attacks.
“The grid is a shared ecosystem,” Parris emphasized.
And because it’s a shared ecosystem, there must be shared responsibility.
“You’ve got to bring together the people who create the equipment on the grid, people who build software for the grid, government agencies who write the policies, investors who invest in the markets that make the grid,” he said.
For that to occur, he said, requires these three considerations be met:
• The physical aspect of the grid, because it we will need more lanes of highway to make it possible to move all that energy
• Managing the congestion from all that new energy
• The digital side, meaning the ability to forecast the problems, and react in real time
On that point, GridWise Alliance CEO Karen G. Wayland, said meeting the grid challenges must also include discussions about investment in features like sensors, advanced grid control, data analytics and software service.
“These are technologies that help the grid respond faster and more accurately and to deal with potential disruptions,” she said.
Specifically, Quinones talked about hardening the grid, which means increasing its reliability in anticipation (or reaction) to difficult times.
“We had had to elevate substations, design submersible transformers, building stronger poles and lines and arms,” he said, referring to New York’s decision after Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012, which caused almost $20 billion in damage.
Now, he said, we have to do that, as well as add sensors and digital technology, so we can monitor the health of those aspects and respond more effectively.
Overall, Wayland thinks tying climate policy to infrastructure is good for the economy and the grid; so, to that extend, she applauds the administration’s current efforts.
“Once that money goes out into the economy, it’s durable policy. We build equipment, we deploy technology. And once that money goes out into society, it can’t be rolled back,” she said.
With so much of the grid in flux, both on generation as well as the consumption side, GE’s Parris said the key ingredient to entire panoply of the grid may be the easiest to understand.
“It’s you – you and I. We are going from energy consumers to energy ‘prosumers.’ We produce and we consume. We are adding capabilities to the grid, so how do we integrate with the grid? We must work harmoniously,” he said.