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The electrical grid of the future must be built around community need

With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, power utilities now have billions of dollars in new investment to modernize the grid and integrate more clean and renewable energy into the mix, with an important nod to increasing resiliency and equity. Though the future of provisions within Build Back Better remains uncertain, the connection between infrastructure and social resilience is increasingly recognized, notwithstanding the challenges of measurement.  

“Resilience” has become a keyword in government and industry circles during ongoing discussions about infrastructure modernization and disaster mitigation priorities, including energy grid investments, and for good reason. The grid facilitates virtually all aspects of modern life and is a lifeline to communities before, during and after disasters, making any measure of resilience incomplete without a focus on community.

Many parts of the electric grid in the United States are based on the provision of stable electricity from large, centralized sources of generation that is transmitted over great distances to homes, businesses and other end users. Today’s grid must build on work to integrate increasing levels of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar and energy storage that feed into it from the neighborhoods they serve. But much of this distributed generation is variable and dependent on weather conditions. To harness these resources, the grid needs equally important, but less visible critical investments in smarter and more decentralized distribution systems that can provide the flexibility needed to ensure the reliability, power quality and resilience on which customers depend.

One of the key drivers of this push towards infrastructure investment is, of course, climate change. Central to that is the need to adapt to the more powerful natural hazards that we are already experiencing and to limit the trajectory of future climate change by reducing emissions. When enabled by advanced grid capabilities, distributed clean energy resources support both aims: they provide sustainable power and more options for keeping the lights on when disaster strikes. 

When we consider grid resilience and its value to communities, benefits are not easily quantifiable. Grid reliability is primarily measured in terms of the frequency of interruptions and duration of downtime. There are also efficiency measures, such as how much of the energy generated is lost in transmission. Lastly, there are measures that assess the cost of energy including its generation and delivery. But these are only on the periphery of measuring resilience and may miss underlying social vulnerability, and the disproportionate impact on communities that cannot afford backup power systems and cutting-edge energy storage capabilities. 

The term resilience is understandably equivocal; it can refer to how well the grid adapts to disruptive events, how many power disruptions are avoided, and how quickly service is restored. Either way, equity is not a given. Cleaner air and a reduction in the number and duration of power outages undoubtedly benefit all communities. However, communities that are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality and with higher proportions of people who have medical electricity dependencies will fare better with incremental improvements in grid resilience. While there are questions around how resilience metrics should reflect underlying vulnerabilities, there is no doubt that new infrastructure investments should address those vulnerabilities.           

We know preparedness saves money and lives, but the questions stakeholders in and out of government are asking is “how much?” We do not have all of those answers yet, but we are working on them. Commonwealth Edison and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute are collaborating on exploring this intersection of community resilience and grid resilience. From research utilizing existing data to conducting disaster simulations with grid stakeholders and community partners, we are seeking to better understand the dynamics of resilience. 

Others are also working on how to provide more informed support for investment decisions. For example, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Power and Energy Society released a comprehensive survey of resilience frameworks and metrics that included use cases of measures undertaken by electric grid operators in collaboration with regional authorities to increase system resilience and preparedness. The Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium has developed a Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) approach that creates a resilience index based on elements of preparedness, mitigation, and response and recovery mechanisms. 

The need for such quantifiable analysis could not be more urgent. With unprecedented investments into grid modernization occurring across the country and around the world, the metrics used to guide those investments require the full field of vision for the benefits that will be realized, as well as vulnerabilities lurking in our blind spots.  

By looking beyond the importance of merely keeping the lights on, we can augment the ways we value risk, equity and resilience to ensure that the value of these investments in the grid cascade throughout communities and help to build a more resilient future for all.      

Jeff Schlegelmilch is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at the Columbia Climate School at Columbia University, and the author of “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press.  

Daniel Kushner is the manager of Smart Grid Programs at Commonwealth Edison (ComEd). Kushner leads development and strategic planning for smart grid and smart city initiatives to enhance resiliency and sustainability in Northern Illinois.

Tags Disaster preparedness electrical grid Emergency management Emerging technologies Resilience Smart grid

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