Policy Responses Needed for Grid Reliability Crisis

Copyright © 2022 Energy Intelligence Group All rights reserved. Unauthorized access or electronic forwarding, even for internal use, is prohibited.

Reliable power grids are fundamental to society and essential for the energy transition. Yet global power networks currently face many threats to their reliability. But why are power grids so brittle and what should policymakers do? Are these threats unique to a particular location or context and how should they be prioritized? Should each threat be addressed individually, or are broader policy responses needed?

Power grid reliability problems have been widespread. In September 2021, power cuts and blackouts across eastern China slowed the country’s economy and further disrupted global supply chains. Europe faced real fears of power outages during the winter of 2021-22, with energy supplies from Russia being threatened. If unusually cold weather or additional electricity supply problems had occurred in any of these regions, the results would have been catastrophic.

In January 2022, blackouts also swept across central Asia, affecting millions of people in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. India continues to experience power outages in 2022 as it did in 2021. Extreme heat, coal shortages, and a growing economy have caused the worst outages in India in over half a decade.

The US, too, is recovering from power outages, including the massive winter storm in 2021 that devastated the Texan and surrounding regions’ power grids, and the August 2021 blackouts in the Midwest. The latter were due to heavy rains and high winds, and caused 850,000 customers to lose access to power. In November 2021, over 63,000 homes and businesses lost access to power in and around Los Angeles.

More Trouble Ahead

This situation is not expected to improve. For example, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) released its forward-looking reliability assessment, warning of increasing risks to the grid on May 18. Droughts, heat waves, major transmission line outages, generation reserve shortages, supply-chain issues, cybersecurity threats, the tripping of solar generation and wildfires were all identified as potential major threats to the grid’s reliability.

These reliability hazards are so damaging because they incapacitate multiple parts of the grid simultaneously and, in some cases, when demand for electricity is the highest. Severe weather can shut down generation plants of all types, damage transmission lines and substations, and disable distribution lines, poles and transformers. Cybersecurity risks, supply-chain problems and fuel shortages can do the same.

Any meaningful effort to move to a low-carbon future relies upon the expansion of electricity into transportation, heat-intensive industries and hard-to-abate sectors such as maritime and aviation, using large amounts of renewable energy. Solar and wind power are intermittent and, as their role in the grid expands, integrating their variable production into the grid will be an additional reliability challenge.

Coherent Responses Needed

Grid reliability analyses, metrics and policies have historically centered around analyzing independent failures of generation, transmission and distribution components. The types of major common causes or dependent failures have not historically been systematically identified, tracked, analyzed and addressed. Somewhat recently, the term "resiliency" has entered the power sector’s lexicon to both label these common-cause threats and to emphasize the importance of not just preventing power outages but also recovering from them quickly.

For policymakers to respond coherently and systematically to these challenges, power grid reliability and resiliency policies should be centered around common-cause failures; those low or lower probability events that have high impacts. These possible accident sequences need to be identified, based upon actual events and creative brainstorming, and dissected. Systems need to be developed that evaluate relevant historical data, such as severe weather events over recorded time, and record failure modes, pathways, frequencies and impacts.

Second, reliability data, analyses and studies should be shared. Given that many regions and countries are electrically interconnected with across governmental boundaries, a power system failure in one region can bring down power systems in others. Connected regions should consider forming interregional reliability organizations, if they have not already done so, starting with studies and potentially expanding to include joint planning and operational coordination.

Third, resiliency planning is necessary to mitigate the impact of common-cause failures. Policies to prevent blackouts should be integrated with those that reduce their duration and mitigate their social and economic impact. For instance, severe cold conditions require policies to weatherize the entire supply chain from generation to distribution. They also require investments in public warming centers in case power outages occur. Furthermore, the ability to rotate power outages across all customers is critical to ensure periodic, if interrupted, access to electricity during emergencies, particularly during severe cold or hot weather.

Of course, policymakers should not lose sight of other reliability-related challenges their grids may face, such as inadequate levels of investment, regulatory and market shortcomings, and legal and jurisdictional constraints.

The power grid is fundamental to society. Our safety, health and economy depend on a reliable and resilient grid. Achieving grid reliability requires putting common-cause failures at the center of reliability and resiliency analyses and policies.

Frank A. Felder is the utilities and renewables program director at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (Kapsarc) in Riyadh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Utilities, Renewable Electricity , Low-Carbon Policy
Wanda Ad #2 (article footer)
A multipolar world is taking shape, politically and economically — with New and Old Energy playing key roles.
Fri, Sep 30, 2022
Two sizable projects in Texas and North Dakota are taking different approaches to an old technology.
Fri, Sep 30, 2022
New takes on the technology are gaining steam as emerging sector looks to oil industry for expertise and innovation.
Wed, Sep 21, 2022