Is the Electrical Grid Prepared for Climate Change?

of electric vehicles is another major change, which could potentially double the peak demand of a residential consumer, necessitating grid upgrades.
The grid is required to enhance its capabilities at three layers of physical, cyber and decision making to address these challenges. The physical layer needs new technologies such as real-time monitoring devices and microgrids to provide local intelligence to better manage distributed resources. The cyber layer needs updated communications and cybersecurity measures to deal with the digitalized grid. And the decision-making layer needs a significant overhaul to leverage state-of-the-art technologies, such as artificial intelligence and advanced computing.
How does the grid need to be changed to bring new renewable and reliable energy resources online?
Electricity production is responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, right after the transportation sector at 27%. Besides the extensive negative societal impacts, these emissions exacerbate the climate change that would further disrupt grid operation. It is vital to reduce these emissions—something that should be done by leveraging clean, renewable energy resources such as wind and solar.
Although these resources are clean, renewable and becoming increasingly cost-effective, they pose a few technical challenges to the grid. The first challenge is generation intermittency and volatility, meaning that they cannot produce electricity at all times, and the electricity production can significantly fluctuate within seconds. The grid needs to be upgraded to handle such fluctuations by installing fast response units, mainly gas-powered, or energy storage, which is costly. The second challenge is the lack of inertia. The traditional thermal generation units rely on electromechanical energy conversion through rotating elements, offering a mechanical inertia that can be offered to ride-through small load variations. This is necessary to keep the grid stable. Wind and solar energy resources do not offer inertia, hence cannot support grid stability. Recent advances in power electronics, i.e., high-power electronics used to connect wind and solar generation with the gird, provide viable solutions to this challenge.
Will consumer behavior need to change with the grid?
Consumer behavior is in fact changing, turning consumers from traditionally passive players in the grid to more active players that could react to grid conditions. If an outage in the grid disrupts the electricity delivery, the future consumer will automatically switch to its own generation to locally address that outage. If there is no outage, the future consumer will sell electricity back to the grid and be paid for its contribution to the grid supply.

However, an active consumer can play a much more vital role in grid operation. Many of the grid’s technical challenges—for example the renewable generation fluctuation—need for improved resilience, and even system recovery after disasters, can be addressed by active consumers. To simplify it substantially, think of what Uber did for transportation. The way that Uber provided a viable and additional option for transportation, active consumers can provide multiple sustainable services for a more reliable, resilient, efficient and clean power grid.