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5 key challenges to greening the U.S. power grid

The U.S. power grid was not designed to support renewable energy sources. Updating it will require creative solutions to five key challenges.

Nov 29, 2023

There’s a problem with the U.S. power grid.

Conceived in the late 19th century and built largely in the mid 20th, it was never designed to support renewable energy sources like wind and solar. This disconnect means that many of today’s clean energy projects often have to wait years before coming online—a backup the International Energy Agency says is only getting worse as existing infrastructure ages and green energy technologies advance. 

The Aston Clean Energy Campus is one promising potential part of the solution, providing a self-contained and sustainably-powered grid to help significantly cut the wait time for new industrial projects powered by clean energy. To fully fix the outdated US power grid, however, we need to first understand and then solve the key challenges that currently stand in the way of its modernization.

1. Reliability

The calculus for almost any power grid is simple: Generation always has to match load. In other words, in order for the grid to function properly, the amount of power being generated (input) must always match the amount of power being used (output).

Burning fossil fuels allows for a reliable solution to this equation at the cost of environmental degradation. You can burn more when the load is high, or less when it’s low. Unfortunately, most sources of carbon free energy are intermittent (the sun isn’t always shining, and the wind isn’t always blowing), and this variability causes a significant challenge for independent service operators whose job it is to ensure the lights can always stay on. 

Adding new sources of variable, carbon-free power to the grid threatens to disrupt its reliability. 

Solving this challenge will require a significant amount of storage. As renowned power engineering expert Gary Rackliffe put it, “You have to have a battery. You have to have something that can maintain voltage and frequency and that can steady or absorb the variation [of renewable energy].” It may also require changes to the demand side of the equation—or likely some combination of the two.

2. Geography

The most abundant renewable energy resources are often located in the most sparsely populated areas. This makes sense, as sunny deserts and windy plains tend to make for inhospitable living environments. And when it comes to power generation, location matters.

“Wind turbine power scales with the wind speed cubed,” said Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins, a macro-scale energy systems engineer. “That means the best wind power sites are eight times more productive than the worst ones. The greater degree of variation in wind power potential means we need to build wind farms where it’s really windy, and that tends to not be where too many people live.”

A clear example of this geographical challenge can be seen in West Texas, whose 11K+ wind turbines often cannot get the energy they generate to the 20M+ residents living in the eastern “Texas triangle” due to a lack of transmission

Delivering wind power generated in the plains and solar power generated in the southwest to major demand centers like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago will require thousands of miles of cables and likely decades of public work projects.

3. NIMBY-ism

NIMBY or, “Not In My Back Yard”, is commonly used to describe people whose primary opposition to carbon-free energy generation comes from its proximity to where they live. 

Perhaps the most famous example of NIMBY-ism in the U.S. is the ongoing debate over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The project, which would have helped bolster carbon-free nuclear power generation in the country, has been defunded since 2011 after years of development. Many other more recent examples exist, such as the cancellation of plans to build the largest solar field north of Las Vegas and the passing of laws to block clean energy projects in ten Ohio counties.

There are multiple reasons why such opposition exists, ranging from aesthetic (windmills) and safety (nuclear) concerns to socio-political beliefs and biases and even misinformation. Because of this, there’s likely no single panacea for overcoming the NIMBY challenge. Education will likely be key, however, particularly as promising new technologies like Small Modular Reactors (SMR) continue to emerge.

4. Incentivization

Ever since Samuel Insull established what would become Com-Ed in Chicago in the late 19th century, U.S. utility companies have operated in large part as regulated local monopolies. This is a problem when it comes to innovation.

Without competition, utilities don’t have much, if any, incentive to modernize. Take the 2018 Camp Fire in California, for example. The blaze, which burned for more than two weeks and claimed more lives than any other wildfire in the state’s history, was caused by a snapped PG&E utility hook that had not been changed in over 100 years. 

Such monopolized utilities are not rewarded for serving their customers better or with cleaner forms of energy. Instead, they’re paid more for building new physical infrastructure. Because of this business model, innovation that introduces variable renewable energy onto the grid  is often seen as a source of unnecessary risk that offers little to no financial gain.

5. Financing

Finally, who’s going to pay for all of this modernization? Estimates on the full cost of upgrading the US power grid by 2050 run from $700 billion all the way to $2.4 trillion. Globally these costs could climb significantly higher, as much as $5.8 trillion annually by some estimations.

Similar to the incentivization challenge discussed above, there is currently no mechanism in place to financially reward any new, innovative value created for the energy grid. This necessitates the use of government subsidies such as renewable energy certificates or production tax credits to pay for clean-energy innovation.

Looking forward

There’s no doubt that the grid can be updated to meet current carbon-free energy needs. It’s been built before, it can certainly be built again. Doing so will require a firm grasp of the challenges mentioned in this article, as well as innovative solutions that will allow for steady, progressive steps towards modernization. 

We believe the Aston Clean Energy Campus is one such step. Visit the Aston website or join us on LinkedIn and Twitter/X to learn more.