In many countries, the electric grid is a sprawling network of generators and connectors that links citizens to energy distributed by government agencies and private companies. Increased demands for power, combined with a failure to maintain or expand these grids, will pose new challenges over the next two decades.
Utility companies aren’t repairing and modernizing their equipment fast enough. In the wake of climate change and new power demands, managing the grid is proving difficult. And, like many countries, the does not currently have a comprehensive national electricity policy and isn’t engaged in long-term planning in this field.
In 2019, a broken jumper wire from a transmission tower started the historic Kincade Fire in California. The blaze spread quickly and devastated thousands of homes and businesses. In the aftermath, Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s biggest utility, decided to begin cutting power in anticipation of weather conditions—like fast, dry winds—that could lead to more of its lines going down.
In October last year, the company abruptly cut power to 800,000 customers, which resulted in blackouts throughout San Jose, Berkeley, San Mateo and Oakland. Climate change has resulted in drier, hotter weather in some parts of the world, while in other areas ice has become more common. The problem: Our power networks weren’t designed with these new environmental realities in mind.
Another big change on the horizon: lots of new power-hungry devices. Electric vehicles will soon be everywhere, which will cause a spike in electricity demand. So will streaming services, distributed computing applications, connected home appliances, and many other technological advancements.
Researchers have been studying new ways to address grid management challenges. For example, MIT completed an interdisciplinary study on the future of the grid and outlined a series of steps that could be taken now to preempt anticipated issues, including ways to incentivize renewables, introduce computational tools to make better predictions about usage, explore new methods for wide-area transmission planning, and seize opportunities for energy conservation.
We will start to see faster deployment of “microgrids,” which can operate autonomously using artificial intelligence and can offer energy in developing countries, where as many as a billion people still live without electricity.
Companies like San Diego-based XENDEE and WorleyParsons Group have developed cloud software tools for microgrids. And energy storage will improve—scientists in Germany and at Northwestern University in Chicago, for instance, are making advances in “singlet fission” technology to generate more electricity from solar cells.
When the grid fails, it can cost millions of dollars, wreak havoc on public safety services, and put lives in danger.
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