Pandemic underscores the urgency of grid resilience

Electricity is an essential underpinning of modern life, never more so than during the current pandemic. It has enabled our quick conversion to remote work and learning, and is a critical lifeline for hospitals and other essential healthcare services. But the grid that is so reliably keeping us powered through this crisis faces risks of its own, including the rising impacts of climate change.

The pandemic underscores the urgent need to strengthen the resilience of the nation’s power grid against climate and other risks, including cyberattack – and a major grid upgrade could at the same time strengthen the foundation for decarbonizing the U.S. economy, and create desperately needed jobs as we work to rebuild the economy.

That’s why in a recent policy brief we lay out the measures Congress should include in an economic recovery package to ensure a national power grid fit for the challenges of the 21st century. These include increasing investment in distributed energy resources, like energy storage and microgrids.

It has not been easy to maintain grid reliability through these initial months of the pandemic. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) reports “a significant degree of uncertainly that is without precedent.” Near-term risks include a significantly smaller workforce, an encumbered supply chain, and limited support services. NERC also notes potential new cybersecurity threats and altered system conditions, including lower demands and higher voltages.

Operators have employed a range of emergency-response strategies. For example, New York’s grid control room operators volunteered to isolate themselves to guarantee reliability. Great River Energy, the second-largest electric power supplier in Minnesota, activated emergency measures prepared after the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak and prepared to sequester key employees on site, if necessary. Other companies have instituted measures including rotating control room shifts, worker screening, and splitting operations between primary and alternate locations.

Recent disasters have demonstrated the vulnerability to climate impacts like wildfires and extreme weather events that bring high winds and heavy precipitation. Hospitals in New Orleans and New York City lost power after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Similar weather-related outages now could be even more disastrous. With 128 million people facing an elevated flood risk in their communities, there are now concerns over some temporary COVID-19 medical facilities built in known flood zones.

While hospitals are besieged with a surging number of cases, more than 2.5 million Medicare beneficiaries rely on electricity-powered medical equipment, such as respirators or dialysis equipment, to live independently in their homes. A power outage could force these vulnerable people to go to hospitals instead of sheltering in place, another influx the healthcare system would struggle to handle. Backup power or battery storage can be the only barrier between keeping home-care patients safe or sending them to crowded hospitals, where they face a higher risk of infection.

Investing in grid modernization will create jobs and strengthen U.S. competitiveness. Both grid-scale and distributed storage technologies are important elements to the grid’s resilience and reliability. In fact, energy storage is among many growing employment opportunities in the U.S. energy sector.

As the pandemic has shown, the resilience and reliability of the electric grid is absolutely critical to maintaining the continuity of essential businesses and other activities. A stronger, smarter grid will not only be more resilient to future climate impacts and public emergencies – it also will be better equipped to integrate increasing volumes of renewable energy and power electric vehicles and other innovative technologies that can move us closer to a carbon-neutral economy.