Outdated Grid Can Stymie Renewables

As more wind and solar plants get built in remote locations, utilities must figure out how to transport and store energy over increasingly vast distances.

2 minute read

December 23, 2021, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Solar and Wind Energy

Soonthorn Wongsaita / Shutterstock

Renewable energy sources are slowly gaining a foothold in the United States, but as Gregory Barber writes, our electric grid isn't quite ready for them. "Since 1889, when the US got its first long-distance power line (it traversed a whopping 14 miles), the grid largely has been set up for energy that’s consumed relatively close to where it is produced." But with renewables like wind and solar requiring vast swaths of space in far-off places, utility companies will have to improve their ability to harness and transport that power to where it's needed.

According to Princeton researchers, meeting national clean energy goals requires increasing the nation's high-voltage transmission capacity by 60 percent. Today, some production facilities are actually forced to shut down when they are producing too much power to transmit over outdated wires.

For plants that are yet to be built, the situation is even worse, because grid constraints mean backers must string new lines, and pay for them, before installing turbines or solar panels. Each year, hundreds of renewable energy projects stall in advanced planning stages due to delays in upgrading transmission lines and the cost of making those upgrades.

Barber describes research being done into 'grid-enhancing tools' that can boost the amount of power that lines can carry and improve flexibility during variable supply and demand periods. But experts say that "[t]echnologies that enhance the existing grid are one part of a much bigger puzzle." Creating a grid that can effectively harness wind and solar energy and meet future demand while preparing for the effects of extreme weather will require a comprehensive plan spanning multiple agencies and users.

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