Summer is almost here, and so are spiking electricity demands across the United States.

While we soak up the sun (or A/C), summer energy demand pushes our aging electrical grid closer to its limit. Annual spikes make it harder for the grid to keep up with our daily needs, eventually leading to reliability issues.

While summer demand is something we can all plan for, Americans are using more power in general. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) suggests electricity sales could increase by 2.7% year-over-year this summer. And as the country’s population and economy grow, they predict demand will creep higher.

But higher electricity sales are only one measurement FERC reports. The agency also expects electricity consumption to be 4.4% higher (an increase of 62.1 TWh) than the five-year summer average.

More demand isn’t the only concern. Renewable energy, especially wind and solar, has introduced new complications. Connecting new power sources to the grid is often slow, thanks to legacy technology and an ever-growing queue. They also tend to exist in remote areas, and running long-distance transmission lines is expensive.

Setting the Stage

The average American doesn’t worry about the grid, but a growing number of agencies and organizations do.

Planning for summer weather is one thing, but the U.S. has an ongoing electricity need driven by many factors. The economy is growing, but it requires a large amount of power.

Modern technology is also spurring energy demand. New developments like artificial intelligence (AI) require massive processing power. From AI and data centers to electric vehicles and evolving industries, nearly everything is drawing power.

Needless to say, we must improve the electrical grid’s reliability and capacity. But how do we fix a system with hundreds of thousands of miles worth of lines?

That’s the question utilities, regional grid operators, and the federal government are trying to solve.

Power Struggles

Few things are more frustrating than sitting in the dark because the power’s out.

Unfortunately, power outages are more common these days than a couple of decades ago. The grid’s infrastructure is old, with some pieces dating back to the 1960s and 70s, and reaching its usable lifespan. Its age also makes integrating new energy sources like wind and solar hard.

The grid we know today was designed for a different energy landscape. Traditional fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas provided constant power, but the need to curb carbon emissions has introduced new renewable energy sources into the fold.

Clean energy can’t easily integrate into the existing infrastructure, limiting growth. At the same time, fossil fuel power plants are retiring, leaving the grid in flux.

Electrical Beatdown

Being old is one thing, but the grid is also susceptible to threats.

Hundreds of thousands of miles of aerial transmission lines crisscross the United States. Severe weather can damage substations and power lines, causing large-scale problems. Power can be out for hours, days, or weeks.

Grid operators also must contend with physical and cyber-attacks from foreign countries and domestic terrorists. Oddly, the only thing protecting most substations from a physical attack is a chain-link fence. Worse yet, attackers can cripple vast parts of the U.S. with only a few targeted strikes.

If all that isn’t enough trouble, our regulations and rules stifle growth. States, grid operators, and the federal government navigate a dizzying regulatory landscape littered with landmines. The result is a slow-moving permitting and approval process limiting innovation and improvement.

Electricity is critical to keeping our lives moving smoothly, and even minor disruptions can potentially cause massive issues. To get ahead, the White House is pushing for new changes and programs to improve operations. While some agencies and organizations are hesitant to see more programs, including renewable initiatives, others are exploring every available solution.

Hot and Getting Hotter

According to FERC, temperatures will likely be above average this summer.

La Nina conditions could also impact the U.S., causing more storms in some regions and less precipitation in others. Although hot, dry weather doesn’t sound like a threat, it’s a perfect recipe for wildfires. Hurricanes may be more likely for coastal states, causing havoc to transmission lines and affecting offshore operations.

Meanwhile, higher temperatures drive power demand. FERC says summer capacity could increase from 1,167 GW last year to 1,207 GW through September. Higher demand requires more power, and the grid could have trouble keeping up, leading to transmission outages and import/export issues between regions.

Government Intervention

In May, the White House launched the Federal-State Modern Grid Deployment Initiative to highlight the grid’s situation.

The program’s name is a mouthful, but its goal is simple: find ways to quickly expand and modernize the grid and increase capacity. So far, nearly two dozen states have committed to take part and improve state-federal partnerships.

But what does a better partnership look like for the electrical grid? Better state and federal coordination can streamline regulations and develop better structures. With time, the partnership may improve intraregional and interregional transmission lines, allowing power to flow wherever it’s needed.

Ultimately, the mission is to encourage power authorities, grid operators, utilities, and others to collaborate while improving critical infrastructure. To encourage action, funds are available through the Department of Energy’s Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnership Program (GRIP). Other money is available through the Title 17 Energy Infrastructure Reinvestment program. Both funds promote better resource deployment and innovations to improve grid resiliency and capacity.

More Than an Initiative

The grid needs help, but it’s not the only problem the United States has to solve.

Many portions of the grid date back to the 1960s and 70s, when fossil fuels were the energy generators. Fast forward to today, and the landscape has changed. Solar panels fill fields, and other renewable power sources supply clean energy to millions of Americans.

Energy consumption has also grown immensely. Technology fills nearly every home, and electric vehicle adoption is increasing. Data centers are gigantic electricity users, providing the computing power to make our digital world thrive. Every new development and discovery push the nation forward but further strains a struggling grid.

GET Some

Completely rebuilding the electrical grid isn’t in the cards, but other methods could improve what we have.

Grid-enhancing technologies (GETs) are a popular and cost-effective choice for utilities and grid operators to improve efficiency. From sensors and power flow devices to hardware, software, and other tools, GETs improve safety, capacity, and overall operation.

GETs also have the unique ability to work across new and existing systems. Ultimately, they can reduce installation times and costs while increasing the current grid’s reliability, adaptability, and maximum potential.

Next Steps

Despite all the excitement, the issue still stands: what do we do about the grid?

Acknowledging the problem is the first step, but we still have to tackle the ongoing energy threat. GETs can shore up the grid and highlight opportunities, but we’ll need to look elsewhere for more power generation.

Renewable energy is a focal point because of the U.S.’ ongoing climate change and carbon reduction efforts. As a result, the country is leaning away from fossil fuels like coal and oil for infinitely renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydro – though there has been pushback.

Some lawmakers, states, and industries believe fossil fuels still have their uses, mainly because they’re more reliable than renewables. Though renewables have grown over the last decade, there is room for improvement – especially in energy storage.

Protection from Outside Threats

Grid reliability is one problem, but managing external threats against it is another.

The U.S. has ongoing disputes with several countries, including China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. Any one of these countries has the potential to launch an attack on the U.S. that could put millions of people in the dark.

A cyberattack, for example, could cause widespread power outages, cascading failures, damage to substations and other infrastructure, and cause countless dollars in lost economic activity.

Physical attacks are equally frightening, as earlier attacks on substations have cut power to millions of people for days or longer. 

Coal Plants Shuttered

The fight against global warming means phasing out older, less clean energy sources.

Coal-powered plants, a long-time source of electric power in the U.S., are retiring, reducing the country’s electrical output. Despite wind and solar energy’s explosive growth, they still need battery support to store energy for later use. Despite the excitement around renewable energy, we still rely on fossil fuels for much of our electricity.

We Can’t Control the Weather

Severe weather is a natural part of the environment, but the weather is more extreme than in the past.

This means hotter summers, stronger storms, drought conditions, tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes threatening our aging infrastructure.

As storms become more threatening, they pose a bigger damage risk to the grid. The country already has a transformer shortage, so running low on other necessary materials would be catastrophic.

High Copper Prices

Copper is critical for the electrical grid but also tough to price.

Recently, the brownish metal broke $5 per pound, and investors speculate prices could move even higher. Prices naturally fluctuate, but experts fear world supply may not match demand. If supply falters, prices can spike to levels we’ve never seen before.

Mining operations can relieve stress with more mining, but that’s easier said than done. Opening a mine can take a decade or more because of regulations, environmental concerns, and angry communities. Additionally, copper grades have been trending down for years, resulting in lower-quality ore.

Almost as important as production is sustainability. Essentially, countries should find ways to associate mining with its environmental impact. We need copper for electricity and myriad other applications, but mining has never been clean and friendly.

One alternative could be to innovate current mining processes while improving copper recycling.

Baby Steps Toward a Better Tomorrow

Despite the grid’s shortcomings, the government is giving us hope for the future.

The Federal-State Modern Grid Deployment Initiative is a critical step forward for the government, states, utilities, and operators. Better cooperation and investing could eventually lead to better regulations and simpler permitting and interconnection. Eventually, it could blossom into more efficient infrastructure.

The White House’s announcement is promising, but results won’t come overnight. However, any improvements will help us achieve a more reliable and successful grid.

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