In the last six years, power outages were more than double what they were in the six years prior – and power systems across the U.S. have collapsed during a multitude of natural disasters and weather events (Reuters). Yet, as our population grows and extreme weather becomes increasingly common, the demands on the power grid will only continue to increase.
But thanks to solar energy, a sustainable solution may be on the horizon.
Solar power technology offers a clean, efficient method for harnessing the energy from the sun and using it to supply electricity to our homes and businesses. More than likely, you’re already aware of the many ways in which using solar power benefits you. From saving on energy bills to having a reliable power source, solar power has its fair share of advantages. But did you know solar can also provide critical benefits to the U.S. power grid?
This guide will explore the basics of power grids, the issues with the U.S. power grid, and how solar might just be the answer we need.
How Power Grids Work 101
The United States electrical grid consists of a massive network of power plants, distribution centers, and transmission lines. It is designed to balance the supply and demand for electricity, delivering the essential energy that powers our country.
So, how do power grids work?
There are three basic components of an electric grid:
- Generation: Electricity is generated at a power plant using fossil fuels or clean energy sources such as wind and solar.
- Transmission: Then, long-distance power lines transport high-voltage electricity.
- Distribution: The electricity arrives at substations, where it is converted into lower voltages that homes and businesses can use. Power distribution lines carry the electricity to consumers.
The U.S. power grid includes about 11,000 power plants, 3,000 distribution centers (utilities), and over 2,000,000 miles of power lines.
How many power grids are in the U.S.?
Even though the U.S. power grid is often discussed as a single entity, it is actually split into three self-contained grids: the Eastern, Western, and Texas power grids.
How outdated is the U.S. power grid?
The basic structure of the power grid has changed very little since its inception when Thomas Edison debuted America’s first power plant in 1882. Although the grid has grown significantly, the general concept has remained very similar.
One of the biggest problems with the power grid is that much of the data that is used to guide its management is not informed by what we now know about climate change. For example, the risk models used by regional grid operators refer to weather patterns going back to the 1970s. None take recent scientific research into account, resulting in a major failure to account how present-day extreme weather can threaten the grid.
And it’s not just the data that’s outdated; the actual equipment used in the power grid also shows its age. The average age of America’s large power transformers (which manage 90% of the U.S. energy supply) is over 40 years old. According to research, the 40-year mark is precisely when malfunctions increase considerably. Moreover, nearly three-quarters of our power lines are over 25 years old, with a lifespan maxing out at 50 years. (Reuters)
How strong is the U.S. power grid?
Unfortunately, the grid has significant vulnerabilities that will likely worsen over time. And even though clean energy presents an excellent alternative to high-polluting power plants, major updates are needed to make it a viable nationwide solution. But before that can happen, sweeping changes will likely need to occur in the way that the grid is controlled – so that broad regulations can be passed to support widespread clean energy measures.
Who controls the U.S. power grid?
There has been much debate over who should control the power grid, with various legislative attempts to organize regulatory powers. Today, there is somewhat of a “patchwork” of federal and state authorities tasked with maintaining oversight of the grid.
Currently, the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (the FERC) is the primary authority over generating and transmitting energy across the U.S. However, state and municipal governments control the actual distribution of power.
In 1970, the Clean Air Act granted the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to limit air pollution produced by power plants supplying the U.S. grid. However, in June 2022, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the EPA did not possess the power to enforce sweeping regulations for power plant emissions.
How the U.S. Power Grid is Failing
Right now, there are a few key problems with the U.S. electrical grid:
- Extreme weather, which is frequently worsened by climate change, is a major concern for the grid’s reliability.
- Severe weather and natural disasters can easily overwhelm outdated power lines.
- Most of the grid’s structure is built above-ground, where it is more vulnerable to weather events.
- The steadily increasing variability caused by climate change is boosting energy demand while simultaneously decreasing the efficiency of both transmission and production.
According to information from the Council for Foreign Relations, the U.S. grid was essentially designed to operate under conditions that no longer exist. Current extremes surpass what was predicted at the time of the grid’s development, which is why we see more grid failures than ever before.
Why Solar Renewable Energy is the Answer
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory states that reinforcing the U.S. grid is possible and that a more diversified mix of energy sources is key. What exactly does this mean? We can no longer rely entirely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy; rather, incorporating renewable energy sources is a move that is long overdue.
A single energy generation method can’t meet the complex needs of the power grid. However, by combining various methods, we can strengthen the grid and make progress towards a cleaner, more efficient America.
Ongoing research has shown that solar energy holds an impressive amount of potential for improving the grid:
- Testing in California proved that a new photovoltaic (PV) plan reacted extremely effectively to load changes, delivering regulation accuracy that was close to 30% better than a conventional power plant.
- Solar is being explored as a possible recovery resource to support other power sources in the event of a system shutdown, speeding up reconnection time from days to just hours.
And, of course, on a personal level, using solar power as your energy source can lessen your dependence on the grid. So, when issues occur, you can still have a consistent, reliable supply of electricity.
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