Investing in Resilience: Technology’s Role in Strengthening the Grid

New data out from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that the winter of 2023 – 2024 was the warmest on record. In the first two months of 2024, the unseasonably warm temperatures have already fueled devastating tornados and powerful storms, atmospheric rivers that caused significant flooding, winds, landslides and historic wildfires. According to Climate Central, weather-related events such as these are responsible for 83% of the major power outages that occurred in the U.S. between 2000 and 2021, and the numbers are only increasing.  

 The electric grid is central to the climate resilience of communities, local populations, and organizations. C2ES, with the support of Intel – a member of the Business Environmental Leadership Council, has been engaging industry experts to understand the role that emerging grid modernization technologies can play in improving its resilience (check out our 2022 webinar and blog post). To better understand how electric utilities are building climate resilience with technology, we interviewed several large utilities around the country to learn about their approaches and strategies to categorize their efforts to build resilience to physical climate impacts, use technology solutions to modernize the grid, and engage community and corporate clients in these efforts.  

 The insights we collected through these interviews highlight current practices, viewpoints, and opportunities to advance resilience in the electric power sector. C2ES identified the following key takeaways from these interviews.  

Electric utility investments, including technology, need to address the confluence of drivers in the industry: decarbonization, electrification, and resilience. The energy sector is undergoing significant transformation, driven by the need to decarbonize energy generation, support widespread beneficial electrification, and to address resilience challenges in the face of a changing climate and more extreme weather events vents that are already affecting electric utilities. Planning for these drivers holistically promotes more effective solutions, more affordably.  

 Better guidance is key in supporting the massive buildout and deployment of technology to deliver reliable power needs to be climate-ready. Electric utilities are seeking clarity around the metrics and key performance indicators that will help them assess their overall climate resilience and that of new technology being deployed. Utilities are looking to state regulatory commissions, FERC, and NERC, to develop standards, policies, and design specifications for technology and equipment to understand how utilities should incorporate considerations of these changing operating conditions. 

 A prepared supply chain is another key need. Extreme events can lead to supply chain disruptions or spikes in demand for limited parts; utilities can work with their suppliers to ensure they are climate-informed to help meet these new challenges.   

Climate science-informed planning is inconsistent across utilities. Some of the utilities we interviewed are integrating future climate hazard projections (wind, wildfire, sea level rise, etc.) into their planning processes, others are not. Among those that are not, there is still awareness of the increasing importance of planning for more extreme weather events along the lines of those that have recently struck service areas.  

 Maintaining customer affordability of electric service is a central challenge to new investments; technology, proactive planning, and federal cost-sharing can help. 

Utilities have been accessing billions of dollars made available through recent federal legislation (Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act)  to reduce the burden to ratepayers and help to manage affordability of resilience investments. Utilities and local communities are leveraging programs like the Department of Energy’s Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) Program to propose significant new resilience-focused actions, but the utilities we interviewed noted that much more funding is needed to meet resilience goals across the country.   

 C2ES sees a clear role for the federal government to play in boosting new technology for resilience and helping to bring innovation to market faster. Loans, such as those from the DOE Loan Program Office, can support development and demonstration of technology, without putting the risk onto utility customers.   

 When it comes to the types of technologies needed to support climate resilience, utilities are finding “all of the above” are worth investing in.  Specific areas of technology that electric utilities are turning to for resilience include:   

  • Distributed energy technology combined with customer engagement to use that tech to remediate issues locally with feeders and circuits.   
  • Demand response programs to shrink and shape demand; those programs will grow as technology at the customer site is deployed.   
  • Software integrations to optimize how utilities plan and understand what power flow looks like at any given time on the grid and how to fix faults in the system in response to load changes.   
  • Technology to support “self-healing” grid and faster restoration following an event.  

 Utilities are working with local governments, communities, and business customers to advance technologies that improve resilience, but greater education is needed on the value of these investments and the challenges ahead to help prioritize. Some utilities see the greatest potential for these collaborations to come together around hazards that can impact a large area yet have sufficient time for an integrated planning process to proceed—sea level rise is a prime example.  

Utilities are interested in a deeper focus on and broader conversation around climate resilience. The challenges presented by climate impacts have yet to receive the same focus as decarbonization. Much work remains to educate workers and the public on what resilience means, what it looks like, what the end goals are. While climate-informed planning requires a change from the traditional industry planning horizons, this shift can prove challenging. All the same, utilities value opportunities to collaborate with other utilities and companies in the supply chain to share lessons learned, problems, solutions, and key gaps.  

Without proactive planning and investment to find cost-efficiencies, costs to adapt will only rise.  Ensuring that the grid is prepared for climate impacts during a rapid industry transformation requires a clear and common understanding of grid resilience among utilities and regulators, focused cross-industry learning and collaboration to guide action and innovation, and more federal government programs that promote investment in resilience technologies. 

C2ES is committed to supporting policy solutions and corporate and utility leaders that increase grid modernization technology and strengthen infrastructure resilience.