As the U.S. continues to see the highest levels of renewable energy investment in its history, the investment required to expand and improve the energy transmission grid will need to keep pace. This is happening through a combination of private investment and support by the Biden administration. Private companies such as National Grid are investing heavily in grid innovation, while the Biden administration announced $13 billion in new funding opportunities for the modernization and expansion of the electric grid. This funding will be split between the Grid Resilience Innovative Partnership (GRIP) and the Transmission Facilitation Program.
The GRIP grid resilience utility and industry grants will be focused on grid transmission and distribution technology with the intention of mitigating potential disruptions to the power system — such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Smart grid grants are intended to improve reliability, efficiency, and flexibility in the electric power system. These grant recipients will include projects focused on integrating renewable energy, increasing capacity, and preparing for the growth of electric vehicles in the market. Lastly, the grid innovation program funds states, tribes, local governments, and public utility commissions as they seek to collaborate with grid owners and operators to improve transmission, storage, and distribution. Projects which improve grid storage will be of particular importance. Pradeep Tagare, Vice President and Head of Corporate Venture Fund at National Grid Partners, the CVC arm of National Grid, observed how the storing of excess energy will be a particular challenge, as only so much will be taken from the grid at a specific time. However, he provided optimism by adding that there are many companies currently innovating in the grid storage sector, including LineVision, a sensor technology that can unlock up to 40% more capacity on power lines, and TS Conductor, a new and innovative power line technology that increases capacity by 2x.
Additionally, the Transmission Facilitation Program funds the creation of large-scale new transmission lines, upgrades for existing transmission lines, and the establishment of microgrids in certain areas. This program will provide up to $2.5 billion to create new high-capacity transmission lines or increase the capacity of existing transmission lines. The Department of Energy is authorized to purchase up to 50% of the maximum capacity of the transmission line, which will increase investor confidence and reduce project risk. This will be particularly important as electric vehicles enter the market, as energy demand will become more distributed as EVs have the ability to charge from anywhere.
The need to build the power grid to incorporate new renewable energy projects has become evident, as the majority of the US power grid was built between the 1960s and 1970s. Research done through the Princeton Net Zero America Study found that “nearly 3 trillion in capital must be mobilized for energy-supply infrastructure in the 2020s (to achieve net-zero pathways.)” This report released a list of priority actions that must occur from 2020–2030 that will make the net-zero by 2050 goal feasible. These include expanding high-voltage transmission capacity by 60% to improve the delivery of renewable energy and the planning and permitting of additional energy transmission to allow for further solar and wind expansion.
One of the biggest ways in which this can be accomplished is by focusing on inter-regional transmission which would significantly reduce the cost. The decentralization of the grid to better incorporate renewable energy will also play a critical role in reaching the goal of net zero emissions. Tagare described how this commitment to decentralization is a field in which companies are constantly innovating. This decentralization will include transmission and grid upgrades. Tagare describes how, “interconnection times right now are long and are not well matched with where renewable energy occurs.” Decentralization, along with digitization and decarbonization, are the basis for the National Grid investment strategy, which has a $400 million fund and has already invested in 40 companies.
Grid investment, whether through the Biden administration or through private enterprise, is essential to the development of the renewable energy industry. This is especially true as electric vehicles (EVs) continue to enter the market. As Tagare remarked, “there is growing recognition that the grid needs to be upgraded. As penetration of EVs increases, the demands on the grid are going to increase.” The transition to a carbon-neutral country relies on a far reaching and efficient power grid, one that needs to be a priority for US public and private investment going forward.
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