Weak power grids expose risks for the electrification of everything


An electrical substation is seen after winter weather caused electricity blackouts in Houston, Texas, US. The crisis in Texas highlights weaknesses in the US network that need fixing to help achieve Biden’s goal of an emissions-free power system by 2035. — Reuters

Home heating systems shutting down. Hospitals facing water shortages. Oil refineries going offline.

The freezing, snowy weather in Texas exposed how quickly an energy system can be brought down and how widespread the chaos can be. That raises questions about the vulnerability of power grids around the world just as more parts of our everyday lives electrify.

Grid operators model the reliability of their systems to handle harsh weather, and climate change is triggering more of those events at both ends of the thermometer. Electrifying sectors such as transportation and heating is considered vital for reducing the emissions contributing to global warming, yet the grids may not be able to handle the load.

“The risks for power consumers are rising as the typical home electrifies an increasing share of its energy consumption,” said Sanjeet Sanghera, a London-based energy analyst with BloombergNEF. “You are putting all your eggs in one basket.”

Global demand for electrons is set to surge 60% by 2050, according to BNEF, as electric vehicles, smart devices and the Internet of Things become more commonplace. BNEF estimates that global investment in grid infrastructure could increase to US$28.7 trillion (RM115.91 trillion) during that time to support a tripling in renewable capacity. That amount is larger than the US gross domestic product.

The challenge facing policy makers is how to make that spending palatable to customers. In Britain, network charges already make up 22% of power bills.

It’s estimated Europe will need to spend US$4.9 trillion (RM19.79 trillion) on its grids, with about 45% of that just for strengthening what’s already there.

The continent’s biggest economy, Germany, is targeting 10 million EVs on the roads by 2030, a push that could raise overall electricity demand by 10%, said Andreas Loeschel, professor of energy economics at the University of Muenster.

China is the world’s biggest EV market, and the power network is trying to keep those cars running. State Grid Corp of China, which operates the infrastructure for more than 80% of the country, spent 2.43 trillion yuan (RM1.51 trillion) on projects the past five years and is earmarking another US$350bil (RM1.41 trillion) through 2025. The world’s second-biggest economy wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

“There’s going to be a significant ramp-up in complexity because of more connection points that will be needed and also more demand,” said Gerhard Salge, chief technology officer at Hitachi ABB Power Grids Ltd, the world’s biggest installer.

The crisis in Texas highlights weaknesses in the US network that need fixing to help achieve President Joe Biden’s goal of an emissions-free power system by 2035. A study commissioned by trade association Wires before these outages said as much as US$600bil (RM2.42 trillion) in spending will be required by 2050.

It’s difficult to assess how much investment is enough. Calls are growing for the industry to change its modelling for weather disruptions and its planning to address them.

Sub-zero temperatures are rare in Texas, and the recent arctic blast wreaked havoc with wind turbine blades freezing, power plants shutting down, and liquid oil and gas solidifying in pipelines and wells.

Demand records in Europe were broken this month as frosty weather clamped down on several countries, but there were no blackouts. One reason: gas is used more widely for heating than electricity, so the load is spread across a different network.

That advantage may soon disappear, though. As the European Union implements its Green Deal, heating systems need to shift away from gas in order to decarbonise.

Another reason for Europe’s resilience to the cold is that about 41% of the continent’s low-voltage power lines – the ones mostly serving residential communities – lie underground, making them less vulnerable to weather, according to Europacable, an industry group.​

That’s not the case for overhead cables, which can stretch in the high temperatures of a Texas summer and hang dangerously low to the ground. Strong winds and lightning strikes also pose threats.

While the Texas storm is a once-in-a-decade event, extreme weather events are happening more frequently. Last year, the US endured a record-setting 22 weather and climate disaster events, with losses exceeding US$1bil (RM4.03bil), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The worst heatwave in generations hit California in August and triggered the first rolling blackouts since 2001. The state has an ambitious clean-energy policy – getting about a third of its generation from renewables – but near-record demand tested that shift.

Regulators say this can’t happen again and are ordering utilities to find more sources of power, including by building giant batteries and contracting more capacity from gas plants.

“Extreme temperatures are putting today’s power systems in transition to fresh tests,” International Energy Agency analysts Keith Everhart and Gergely Molnar wrote in a Feb 18 report. “Avoiding major outages in the electricity systems is also crucial to ensure solid societal support for clean energy transitions.”

South Australia state suffered a state-wide blackout in September 2016 after storms brought down power lines, stoking debate in the coal-dominated nation about the reliability of renewable generation. Wind farms were meeting about 48% of the state’s electricity at the time.

By 2050, about 70% of Europe’s power capacity will be wind and solar. The grid will need better ways to collect and distribute this electricity, and battery storage will be crucial to making the system more resilient to extreme weather.

One criticism levelled at Texas is that its grid is isolated from the rest of the US, so power companies couldn’t call on neighbouring states for help.

“We are in the early phase of development where we must continue and even accelerate,” Salge said. “Without that we will not have any chance of making these very ambitious carbon-neutral targets.” – Bloomberg

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