A variety of factors like extreme weather and increased use of renewable energy are affecting the electric utility industry so much that there’s even a new way to talk about it: resilience.
You might be surprised to learn that “resilience” isn’t exactly used to describe the major changes affecting electricity service. Instead, it’s about actionable steps electric utilities are taking to keep power flowing.
Just a few years ago, “reliability” was the term of choice. Reliability meant trimming trees near power lines and keeping squirrels from chewing up electrical equipment. Attention to those priorities worked. The average American’s electricity stayed on well over 99.9% of the time. That reliability record is still holding up, but it’s under pressure on several emerging fronts.
More powerful and frequent natural disasters and even the growing fleets of electric vehicles call for all electric utilities to learn new ways to do their job. These days, maintaining the power grid means planning for sudden and large-scale disruptions.
If you’re not sure what the difference is between “reliability” and “resilience,” you’re not alone. Even utilities can have slightly different definitions. But most tend to agree that grid resiliency is the ability to withstand and recover from disruptive events and to predict and adapt to ensure consumers have the reliable power they need in a time of new energy challenges.
A less formal definition from the Future Electric Utility Regulation Advisory Group compares electric service to a boxing match:
“Reliability is when you can take a punch. Resilience is how fast you get up off the canvas after you’ve been hit hard.”
Electricity is more important than ever to our daily lives. At the same time, weather events can suddenly take that essential electricity away from large numbers of people. Utilities need to be ready to get back up off the canvas quickly. And that’s what they’re doing, from burying more power lines underground to outage recovery plans that get the most essential services back online first. Last year, Congress passed and the White House signed a law that includes a $10.5 billion Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnership Program.
Here are a few other ways electric utilities are building resilience:
Coordinated, Local Planning
Cybersecurity is an example of government and utilities working closely together, sharing information to protect against the latest cyber threats. In other cases, one size does not fit all.
Electric cooperatives in particular point out that resilience means paying attention to regional and local differences. Raising substations higher off the ground might make sense in flood-prone areas while wrapping utility poles with fire-resistant coverings could be considered where wildfires are a threat.
One idea being tried is to create small areas that can supply their own electricity in the case of a widespread outage, using a combination of energy sources like wind and solar power, large-scale storage batteries and diesel generators.
Electric utilities are investing to build power lines that connect to new sources of renewable energy. They’re also investing in digital equipment and sensors that can more quickly detect and resolve power outages or other problems.
Rooftop solar arrays that allow homeowners to sell excess power back to the utility offer an example of another major change in the electric industry. It’s called Distributed Energy Resources, or DER, which describes home generators, batteries and other energy sources. The challenge for utilities is to integrate those power sources, that could be variable and intermittent, into the smooth flow of electricity on the grid.
There are opportunities as well — the growing numbers of electric vehicles plugged in overnight could be seen as a huge energy drain on the grid when the batteries in the electric cars are charging. Or those same batteries, when fully charged, could be a source of reserve power to supply the home in case of a large, unplanned outage.
There’s no doubt that major changes to the way we generate and consume energy are happening. But utilities, including electric cooperatives, are answering the call with innovative solutions to serve their local communities. That’s called resilience.