An ageing grid stands in the way of electrifying everything – here are three way to fix it

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The power sector is changing more rapidly than ever before. At this critical moment in the energy transition, new data centers, manufacturing, and electric vehicle fleets are asking to connect to the electric grid without delay. Meanwhile, the grid, which is already reaching its capacity to deliver on our current electricity needs, is barely squeaking by during increasingly frequent extreme weather events: blackouts and near misses of blackouts have sparked serious concerns around the reliability of the current system, let alone a system that may eventually need to deliver two to three times the amount of power.

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Given these current challenges, how can our grid support “electrifying everything’’ — which is the most energy- and cost-efficient way to meet our climate goals — while also advancing progress on phasing out the fossil fuels that currently power much of our system?

We have tools and solutions available to address the unique and emergent challenges that new electric technologies present to the grid. To support a fully electrified economy, we need to vastly improve and expand our transmission and distribution systems to bring capacity to and from new places. But the solutions go beyond building new wires. Demand response and virtual power plants have important roles to play in wholistically electrifying the economy in ways that can support the grid as load grows. Utilities and their jurisdictions need to take proactive planning measures to modernize the grid and the way we use it — leveraging big wires, small wires, and non-wires solutions to advance economy-wide decarbonization.

Big Wires

Today, across the country, over 2 terawatts (TW) of mostly wind, solar, and battery storage projects — more than the approximately 1.25 TW of electric generation capacity online in the United States today — are unable to connect to the grid in large part because we do not have sufficient grid capacity to support them. Dozens of sophisticated modeling studies, assuming varying levels of efficiency and growth in electricity use, show that we will need many new high-voltage, long-distance transmission lines to carry clean power from where it is abundant (often remote and sparsely populated regions) to where it is needed (especially urban areas, industrial demand centers, and data centers).

Unfortunately, we currently do not plan nearly enough of new transmission and take far too long to figure out how to site and pay for the lines we do plan. Expanding our transmission capacity to meet our future electricity demands should include not only building new lines, but also upgrading existing transmission using available tools such as grid-enhancing technologies (GETs) and advanced conductors that allow us to transmit more power through existing transmission corridors. GETs are easy-to-install hardware and software solutions that can increase power flow through existing lines, while also enabling billions of dollars in power system savings. RMI research found that $100 million of investment in GETs across five states could unlock $1 billion in annual savings for electricity customers, largely by removing grid bottlenecks currently holding up investment in wind, solar, and battery-based power plant projects.

Meanwhile, we can apply advanced conductors to upgrade power lines themselves, while reusing much of the existing infrastructure like transmission line towers and electrical substations. Use of advanced conductors can double or more the amount of electricity that can safely flow through a given transmission circuit, without requiring the lengthy siting and permitting processes that delay investment in brand-new power lines.

Regional transmission organizations and state authorities must work together to plan and build a modernized transmission system — a process that can be made quicker and easier with guidance from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Meanwhile, federal and state leaders have legislative opportunities to prioritize GETs for improving affordability.

Small Wires

While an improved and expanded transmission system is needed to accommodate new clean energy generators and electrified end uses that require bulk power in a single location, such as data centers and industrial hubs, scattered power demand from electric vehicles, heat pumps in buildings, and other diffuse sources of electricity demand requires smaller wires at the neighborhood and community level. Preparing the grid to accommodate these smaller loads presents a unique challenge and a need for smarter distribution system planning.

The transportation sector — one of the largest contributors to human-made greenhouse gas emissions — is already on a  fast path to electrification. Many customers and logistics companies are switching to electric vehicles, which deliver 60-86 percent fewer emissions than internal combustion engine vehicles, and could help avoid billions of dollars in public health expenditures if they are widely adopted. But to fully realize the benefits of EVs, proactive distribution upgrades are required so that EV charging doesn’t strain the system. What’s more, EVs create an entirely new need to deliver large supplies of power in areas where they have not historically been necessary — such as in rural areas along highway corridors.

Utilities need to be able to validate proactive investments in distribution infrastructure by understanding when, where, and how much energy and power demand will arise from EVs. Forecasting tools can enable proactive planning to ensure utilities can swiftly build the needed distribution and avoid unnecessary spend passed on to customers. Further, regulators can deploy incentives for utilities to expand their load forecasting with the goal of ensuring that the transportation sector can electrify reasonably quickly.


As new loads come online, the growing constellation of connected devices in homes, businesses, and driveways across America, including electric vehicle chargers, smart thermostats, home batteries, and controllable water heaters, can be aggregated and coordinated in ways that provide the same value to the grid as traditional power plants. Leading companies are already using software to coordinate networks of these devices to build flexible grid capacity, and these so-called “virtual power plants” (VPPs) are already helping keep the lights on during extreme weather in California and Texas.

Virtual power plants, deployed at scale, could save US utility customers $10 billion and reduce peak electricity use by 20 percent by the end of this decade, according to the Department of Energy, significantly alleviating any pressure from growing electricity demand. And all without the need to wait years for investment in power lines and other traditional infrastructure. To allow VPPs to scale, policymakers and regulators can take measures to level the playing field, allowing them to compete fairly in wholesale electricity markets.

An All-of-the Above Approach

A fully electrified economy needs an all-of-the-above approach to modernizing the grid — one that deploys these small- and large-scale hardware and software solutions to ensure our system can support the electrified end uses that will power our lives. This approach also requires proactive action on the part of utilities, regulators, and policymakers to plan for interregional transmission and distribution while ensuring technologies like GETs and VPPs reach their full potential in helping meet immediate and long-term electric demand growth.

Author: Liza Martin

This article was originally published by the RMI and is republished with permission through the Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Disclaimer: The articles expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Green Building Africa or our staff. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part Green Building Africa concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities.


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