A strong grid ensures reliable relief on hot summer days and keeps homes and businesses warm during bitter winter cold. As much of the U.S. now braces for hurricane season, soaring temperatures and wildfires, climate change is threatening the reliability of our current power system. Business as usual planning and operations are insufficient to produce resiliency against these threats.
Power outages from extreme weather have doubled over the past two decades across the country, highlighting our aging grid and infrastructure. Vulnerable communities have disproportionally suffered during these events, often unable to evacuate from natural disasters or maintain expensive on-site generating equipment during outages.
In order to safeguard the security and reliability of the power system, we must update our planning processes and strengthen our power infrastructure against climate and security threats. These actions must happen while we accelerate the clean energy transition to avoid worsening climate events.
Americans should have confidence that a steady supply of electricity will be available to meet their needs. DOE is making once-in-a-generation investments, providing billions for modernizing and expanding the electricity grid. This will make our energy sector more resilient while enabling the build-out of affordable and reliable clean energy.
Recent assessments of the reliability of the power system by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) highlight several threats. While summer months are typically a time of heightened concern due to higher temperatures and storms, this year we will likely see the combination of multiple climate-related challenges:
- Extreme heat: NOAA is predicting higher than average temperatures for most of the country, raising the likelihood of extreme temperature events that increase demand for air conditioning and cooling and strain electricity generators and power infrastructure.
- Western drought: The western portions of the country are experiencing a severe drought, limiting generation provided by hydropower and thermal generators. Low water availability, combined with higher temperature water, limits the ability of water to provide the cooling needed for thermal generators such as nuclear, coal, and natural gas. This lowers the total generation available from those plants.
- Wildfires: Significant above-normal wildfire risk is forecasted for much of the western and great plains regions this summer. Wildfires can destroy transmissions lines, and utilities sometimes proactively shut down transmission lines during wildfire conditions.
- Hurricanes: NOAA is predicting a 65% chance of above-normal hurricane activity for the 2022 hurricane season. Sea level rise and more powerful hurricanes increase the potential damage of tropical storms against infrastructure that was not designed for these extremes.
Altogether, these climate-related hazards compound additional risks the power system faces. Cyberattacks are a continual threat and may potentially increase due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Continued supply chain constraints from the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to delayed installation of new capacity intended to replace older power plants as they retire. Supply chain issues have also limited the availability of critical grid components such as transformers, constraining our ability to rebuild quickly after a potential storm.
These threats will only increase as climate change intensifies. For example, power plants typically take advantage of the spring months, with mild weather and low demand, to undergo maintenance and prepare for the hot summer months. With climate change, extreme weather and high temperatures are expanding into spring, shortening the available time for regularly scheduled maintenance. Similarly, like the unprecedented Pacific Northwest heat dome last year, we cannot only look to what has happened in the past to determine what we need to prepare for in the future.
There is no silver bullet technology to guarantee a reliable system, and every resource and system is at risk for failure: coal or natural gas fuel supplies can freeze, extended periods of low wind resource can occur, and transmission lines can fail. Reliability and resilience of the system stems from a portfolio of technologies and strategies that limits exposure to common risks and includes forward planning that considers the evolving threats from climate change, extreme weather, and other unknown sources.
While investments in the grid and clean energy are necessary to secure the grid long-term, DOE and the U.S. government continuously monitor potential threats, and are prepared to assist grid operators, and respond to disruptive events should they occur this summer. Through the Grid Modernization Initiative, DOE and the national laboratories are providing technical assistance to grid operators to ensure state-of-the-art tools and analytical approaches are used to plan and prepare for reliability and resilience events under changing conditions. DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) works closely with NERC, the electric power industry, states and reliability coordinators to prepare for potential emergencies. During emergency conditions that threaten grid reliability, DOE has authority under the Federal Power Act to order temporary connections of power plants, generation, and power exchanges with neighboring regions. When an emergency occurs, CESER provides on-the-ground responders coordination and direct assistance to support energy restoration efforts.
Historic Investments in Technologies and Communities for a Strong and Clean Grid
The investments necessary to prepare for future threats while addressing climate change create a massive opportunity to innovate and secure our grid. Not only can we implement new technologies that will produce cleaner and more affordable power, we can build physical and cyber security into the design from the beginning. DOE is in the process of taking full advantage of the authorities provided in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to make investments in our power system infrastructure and protect and expand our supply of clean electricity:
- Resilient Communities: $11 billion in grants to help states, tribes, and utilities enhance the resilience of the power sector infrastructure against threats such as extreme weather and cyberattacks.
- Transmission Facilitation Program: $2.5 billion, under the Build a Better Grid Initiative, to develop nationally significant transmission lines, increase resilience by connecting regions of the country, and improve access to cheaper clean energy sources.
- Civil Nuclear Credit Program: $6 billion for strategic investments to help preserve the existing U.S. reactor fleet, saving thousands of high-paying jobs across the country, and keeping these emission-free power plants open to support reliability and resilience.
- Hydropower Incentives: $700 million allocated to improve efficiency, maintain dam safety, reduce environmental impacts, and ensure generators continue to provide emission-free electricity.
- Enhancing Grid Flexibility: $3 billion for deployment of technologies that improve the flexibility of the grid. These include upgrading existing transmission and distribution systems and deploying energy storage to support resilient communities.
DOE is on the front line of the climate crises, planning for the clean energy future and improving the status-quo. DOE will continue to prioritize the security and reliability of the power system for the American people, as we work with federal, state, and community partners to improve the grid to be truly fit for the 21st century.