A fractured grid that was built for coal- and fuel-based energy generation does not meet the decentralized needs of a clean energy economy. Extreme weather conditions that are likely to become more common in the future have caused the electrical grids to fail when most needed to sustain life. Attacks on power substations in Washington, Oregon and North Carolina late last year showed just how vulnerable our electrical grid is. Improving the infrastructure and resolving risks is critical for the future of solar energy in America.
Infrastructure is Critical for the Growth of Solar Power
Solar power does have tremendous potential in the US. A Department of Energy (DOE) study found that aggressive cost reductions, supportive policies and large-scale electrification could result in solar power accounting for as much as 40 percent of the nation’s electricity supply by 2035 and 45 percent by 2050.
While solar panels on roofs of houses and other buildings are excellent for providing electricity for that one location, far more is needed for renewable energy to power factories, farms and other users across the country. Storage capacity and transmission lines are critical.
Since the wind does not always blow and the sun is not always shining, storage is essential. For the first 20 to 40 percent of the electricity in a region to come from wind and solar,” the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Paul Denholm of told CNBC, “battery storage is not needed. When renewable penetration starts reaching closer to 50 percent, then battery storage becomes necessary. Building and deploying all those batteries will take time and money.” Initiatives are underway for a variety of power storage solutions.
Transmission expansion is perhaps even more important for the growth of solar power. “We have been able to build a fair amount of wind and solar without adding new transmission,” Denholm told CNBC. However, “we’re really kind of running up to the limits.”
The reason transmission is so important is that it is critical for getting electricity to where it will be used. Research at Princeton University found the United States will need to expand its electricity transmission systems by 60 percent by 2030 and may need to triple it by 2050. “The current power grid took 150 years to build,” said Princeton Assistant professor Jesse Jenkins. “To get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that.” The transmission infrastructure needed will also depend on where new solar panel and wind turbine facilities are built, the Princeton researchers noted.
Transmission Infrastructure is Critical – and Lacking
A critical component of the transmission in the national grid is transformers, the Niskanen Center said. Transformers are the equipment that “steps down” the voltage level so it can be safely distributed to communities. They range from small transformers perched atop electric poles to 600,000-pound large power transformers (LPTs) at the 55,000 regional substations in the US. Over 90 percent of the electricity consumed in the US passes through LPTs, making them the backbone of the nation’s high-voltage bulk-power system.
One key vulnerability of the national grid, according to Niskanen, is a shortage of transformers. “These shortfalls hamper our national energy policy and the path to building a sustainable grid.” Ensuring a robust supply and reserve of transformers is a first step to support grid resilience and allow for building the electric infrastructure that would enable cleaner and greener power, bolster domestic manufacturing, spur job creation and strengthen national security.
The attack on the substations highlighted the issue. While the utility companies did have replacement transformers available, the gap between order and delivery for ordinary transformers that would have been needed if replacements were not available has grown from three months to a year.
The situation is even worse for high voltage (HV) transformers, which take the massive voltages generated by power plants and convert them into something usable by homes and businesses. Although HV transformers make up less than 3 percent of transformers in the United States, The National Interest explained, they carry 60–70 percent of the nation’s electricity. If only nine of the thirty HV transformers that are critical to basic national functioning. were disabled during a time of peak electricity demand, a study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) found, the result could be a coast-to-coast blackout. HV transformers require three to four months for engineering design and as much as two years for delivery.
There are other challenges beyond just the time frames. A 2020 report from the Department of Commerce found that the average transformer is 30 to 40 years old, far beyond the intended lifespan of 25 years, so existing transformers need to be replaced. With about 80 percent of transformers being manufactured abroad, the 3,000 domestic electric utilities in the US are vulnerable to supply chain disruptions for both replacements and grid expansion. And a shrinking labor pool has constrained scaling up domestic transformer manufacturing.
Industry Practices and Public Support can Overcome the Challenge
The combination of growth in renewable energy, the vulnerabilities highlighted by the attacks on substations and new laws could well provide the impetus to overcome the challenges with transmission and transformers.
According to the National Law Review, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) (aka, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) provides funding opportunities for a variety of infrastructure projects, including a Transmission Facilitation Program – funded by a $2.5 billion revolving loan fund – that allows the Department of Energy (DOE) to offer loans to, and enter into capacity contracts with, transmission developers in order to provide financial stability to proposed transmission projects. The law also provides $5 billion in funding to DOE to establish a competitive program to fund grid resilience projects, with at least 30 percent of grant funds to be made available to entities that sell no more than 4 million megawatt hours electricity per year. The Transmission Siting and Economic Development Grants program is a $760 million investment through the Inflation Reduction Act to support states and local communities in the siting and permitting of interstate and offshore electricity transmission lines. The Washington State Department of Commerce is currently hosting public hearings and workshops as it prepares the Washington state application. The IRA also allows the president to use the National Defense Production Act to boost transformer production and create a strategic transformer stockpile to mitigate the risk of a sudden loss of existing infrastructure.
While funding is key, planning has often hampered progress and the process needs to be improved to more effectively address long-term and future needs, according to Bill Gates. He also discusses possible innovations to increase the capacity of the existing system.
While we may often see installation of solar panels as the key to ramping up renewable energy generation in America, transformers and the transmission grid are essential for scaling up. Leveraging the new funding and developing a plan to grow the transmission infrastructure as well as to ensure a reliable supply of transformers is essential increasing renewable energy, reducing national vulnerability, and decreasing the carbon emissions that cause climate change.