What is the real threat to grid reliability?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Power Plan limits the carbon emissions from the existing plants in each state, based on each state’s ability to move away from coal to natural gas for generation, to increase the efficiency of the remaining coal fired plants, to generate higher amounts of electricity from renewable sources and lastly to reduce the electricity demand through increased energy efficiency.

The EPA is working with partners to ensure that the plan will not threaten the reliability of the grid but will provide power that is cleaner and just as reliable. The Clean Power Plan targets the most significant threat to grid reliability-the damaging effects of unabated climate change.


A series of independent reports has found that the EPA’s plan is unlikely to impact on grid reliability, which is of paramount importance. Reports by the Analysis and Brattle Groups have shown that the constant transformation of the electricity sector, the variety of operational and technical tools available to operators and the compliance flexibility of the EPA’s plan would in combination maintain the reliability of the grid.

The respective authors concluded that operators would have to address the issue of reliability regardless of the plan, due to a number of factors including a number of factors including changing fossil fuel prices, the retirement of a number of older plants, increasing amounts of renewable energy becoming available and air pollution regulations. Utilities already have long established practices at their disposal including planning processes, communication and operations systems, redundancies and back-up plans and the division of responsibilities among grid operators, regulators and plant and transmission owners.

The EPA is working closely with the Department of Energy and the Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure that reliability is maintained and the carbon emissions reduction target is met. The Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) stated that extreme weather and climate change are risks that need to be taken seriously with respect to electricity transmission, storage and distribution systems. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 demonstrated the vulnerability of electricity infrastructure and the resulting mass power shutdowns left more than 8.5 million customers in New York without power. According to the QER, weather has been the leading cause of grid outages between 2011 and 2014, being responsible for more outage hours than physical attacks, component failures and cyberattacks combined.


Heat waves also increase customer demand for air conditioning, which places pressure on the grid and reduces the efficiency of the transmission and distribution. Sea level rise poses a risk to coastal regions which will be increasingly vulnerable as temperatures increase. In terms of electricity infrastructure, storm surges are the most critical factor for electric substations. Hundreds of substations in the Gulf States in the United States are already at risk in the event of sea level rise and more are likely to become vulnerable as temperatures increase.


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This discussion is obviously very relevant to the United States, however a number of both developed and developing countries will also need to determine and mitigate the vulnerability of their existing electricity transmission, storage and distribution systems. While the urgency is greatest in coastal areas, inland systems still require attention. All levels of Government, power utilities and contractors will all need to plan for and mitigate climate change, and the planning should start now if it hasn’t already.

Taking Australia as an example, the massive increase in rooftop solar systems in a number of states is already precipitating a range of discussions that may not have been foreseen in terms of the amount of electricity that is being “sold back” to the grid by householders and what this means for substation upgrades and maintenance. Given that upgrades and maintenance are inevitable to some degree, it would be opportune for climate change planning and mitigation to be included in such discussions.

As a futurist I leverage my understanding and experience in climate and weather data trends to identify opportunities for those Governments and Industries/Industry Bodies who want to keep ahead of the game. If you recognise the potential size of the threat that climate change poses to your Industry or to your State, Province, Region or Area and need advice on how to manage and mitigate that risk, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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