Our country’s power grid is in a state of rapid transition. As the grid shifts to clean energy sources such as wind and solar and a growing number of electrified vehicles and buildings, it is also facing more frequent extreme weather events brought on by accelerating climate change. climatic. Most of the time, the network can handle normal supply and demand. However, during extreme weather events, conditions can impair production through frozen or overheated equipment while simultaneously increasing the demand for electricity for heating or cooling. During crisis-level events like heat waves and polar vortices, reliable air conditioning and heat can become matters of life and death.
The status quo will not provide the essential level of reliability on which we depend. Without the ability to move large amounts of electricity from one region of the country to another, it may not be possible to keep the lights on during increasingly frequent severe weather events. As winter storm Uri in Texas tragically demonstrated in 2021, the lack of connections to other parts of the country can have disastrous consequences.
At all times, we have abundant electricity (increasingly powered by renewable resources) available across the country. What we don’t have are the policies and practices needed to move electricity to make it available where it’s needed, especially in places where the alternative is more fossil fuel-based electricity. expensive and more emitting.
NRDC engaged GE Energy Consulting conduct a study examining the benefits of additional inter-regional transmission. The study found that increasing transmission capacity between regions would improve grid reliability, provide more affordable electricity to consumers, and improve grid resilience. Each of these benefits is discussed in more detail below.
More inter-regional lines would improve network reliability during extreme weather events
In the study, GE modeled two extreme weather events that caused both high demand and reduced supply: a summer heat wave and a winter polar vortex. In the simulated heat wave (which was modeled after a August 2018), demand was up more than a third above average for this time of year. In the simulated polar vortex (which was based on a Winter storm of February 2014), demand increased by 40% and electricity supply was reduced by 15% as generators were shut down in cold weather (fossil gas is particularly vulnerable to very cold weather). The study then modeled two different scenarios: our existing system where inter-regional transmission is limited, and a model scenario where inter-regional transmission capacity was sufficient.
The results were staggering. The forced heatwave scenario left hundreds of thousands of people without power, including 600,000 customers in New York and 140,000 in Washington, DC, and resulted in costs totaling $875 million as a result of this load loss. Similarly, a simulated polar vortex caused nearly 2 million customers on the East Coast to lose power and cost consumers $1 billion. On the other hand, the removal of these interregional constraints completely eliminated the outages in the heat wave and polar vortex scenarios.
As extensive research has shown, extreme heat conditions can be deadly, especially for the elderly, young children, people with chronic illnesses, low-income communities, communities of color, and people who work or exercise outdoors. The ability to better mitigate extreme heat with air conditioning powered by clean available electricity could save thousands of lives.
Increased cross-regional transmission saves money
Increased transmission capacity between regions also reduces costs for consumers. As regions can import and export electricity more freely, they can access cheaper energy. As a result, overall generating capacity may be lower throughout the eastern part of the United States (referred to as the “Eastern Interconnect”) because regions are able to tap into lower cost generating sources in different locations. other regions that they could not otherwise source from within their own region. GE’s study showed exactly this: production costs (i.e. the costs of generating electricity) were $3 billion to $4 billion lower per year in the Eastern Interconnect in the scenario without constrained than in the constrained scenario in 2035.
GE’s results are likely conservative, and possibly significantly so. For example, GE’s financial projections include forecast natural gas prices that are cheaper than current natural gas prices and are likely cheaper than projected future natural gas prices, meaning consumer savings are probably higher. Additionally, GE used average flows of electricity between regions in its simulations, when these flows can actually be much larger during large summer or winter weather events, meaning that the benefits of interregional transport are likely to be more important. GE has also assumed that each region has sufficient resources to meet normal electricity demand, but if individual regions can rely on external regions for imported electricity rather than building generation in-house, cost savings can be important. In sum, GE’s results are likely a floor and certainly not a ceiling – the actual cost savings to consumers if cross-regional transmission becomes more widespread will almost certainly be much higher.
Increased cross-regional transmission can contribute to overall network resilience
Increased inter-regional transmission will go a long way to providing reliable and affordable electricity, but is not a complete panacea for all grid challenges. GE found that a network with no constraints on inter-regional transmission was only slightly more stable, which refers to voltage fluctuations that can lead to generators being temporarily turned off to protect against damage. However, results would improve if operators incorporated newer transmission technologies such as HVDC, which are less vulnerable to voltage disturbances such as lightning, into their inter-regional transmission plans.
How to get more inter-regional transmission? First, the NRDC urges FERC to reform the inter-regional planning process, which is badly damaged and has resulted in virtually no major inter-regional lines over the past decade. FERC has issued a proposal to reign on Regional Transportation Planning in April 2022, which hits several promising milestones, though we think it could be even stronger. Another idea is to require that different regions have a certain amount of transmission capacity available between regions (i.e. a minimum transfer capacity requirement). Such a requirement could be framed in different ways, as a minimum amount of available transmission capacity between regions, or as a percentage requirement of total installed generation capacity or electricity demand in a region or multiple regions. Regardless of the structure of the requirement, regions should demonstrate a firm transfer capability to supply and accommodate these resources, thereby ensuring their ability to receive and supply electricity from other regions.
We live in a world that is impacted by real-time climate change. Extreme weather conditions are likely to occur more often and be more intense. We need an electrical infrastructure ready for this. This report demonstrates that greater inter-regional transmission planning can save money on utility bills, ensure power reliability and even save lives. It’s time to get to work building the 21st century network we know we need. There’s no time to lose.
You can view the full study here: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/ge-nrdc-interregional-transmission-study-report-20221017.pdf