Sewing the grid together will save lives as extreme weather worsens

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Heavy use of energy-draining air conditioners is the biggest problem. But intense heat can also reduce the output of power plants, blower transformers, and sagging power lines. Severe droughts in large parts of the country have also significantly reduced the availability of hydropower, according to to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).

It is unlikely to get better soon. A number of grid operators may struggle to meet peak demand in the summer, creating the risk of progressive power outages, the NERC report said.

The country’s isolated and aging networks are in dire need of upgrades to keep the lights, heat and air conditioning on amid extreme weather events that are making climate change more frequent, more severe and more dangerous. One obvious way to solve many of these problems is to integrate the country’s regional networks more closely and merge them with more long-distance transmission lines.

If electricity generated in one area can be more easily shared across much larger regions, it can simply flow to where it is needed during those times when customers turn on air conditioners en masse, or when power plants or fuel supply lines fail in rising temperatures, wildfires, hurricanes or other events, says Liza Reed, a research manager focused on transmission at the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington, DC.

The problem is that it has proved difficult to build more long-distance transmission and grid interconnections for a variety of reasons, including the tolerable challenges of running wires through private and public land in cities, counties and states and the reluctance of local authorities to or subject it to more federal oversight.

The case of Texas

The unreliability of the American grid is not a new problem. Severe heat and winter storms have repeatedly exposed the fragility of power systems in recent years, leaving thousands to millions of people without power as temperatures spiked or dropped.

One of the fundamental challenges is that today’s networks are highly fragmented. There are three major power grids in the US: the Eastern Grid, the Western Grid, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). But there are countless regional transmission organizations within those first two systems, including the California Independent System Operator, Southwest Power Pool, PJM Interconnection, New York ISO, and more.

These networks form a complex web of networks operating under different regulators, rules and market structures, and often with limited interconnections.