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Op-eds & Essays Climate Change

Why Our Electrical System Needs to Get Ready for a Lower-Carbon Future


Recent blackouts leaving millions of Californians in the dark demonstrate the rising risks of climate change, but they are also a reminder that policy makers need to boost electricity system reliability and resilience to support the transition to a low-carbon and more electrified economy.

Pacific Gas & Electric has told its customers in California to expect recurring blackouts for the next decade as part of the company’s efforts to reduce the risk of wildfires that can result from high winds bringing down power lines. Recent power cuts have left roughly two million people in the dark, costing the state billions of dollars in lost economic activity and threatening public health and safety.

California isn’t alone, as widespread power outages have left millions without power in recent years from India to Japan to Puerto Rico—the last causing triggering a humanitarian crisis. 

As harmful as these power cuts have been, their impact has been limited by the fact that electricity isn’t used more widely. The lights go out but our cars and trucks can usually keep moving. This will change if we move to electrify more of the economy in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change without properly investing in our electric grids. 

Climate change is already a severe and escalating threat, and stronger action to address it likely involves widespread (though not 100%) electrification of the economy, including transportation and buildings, and a dramatic increase in the share of electricity that comes from zero-carbon sources. 

Electricity supplies, while highly reliable in the U.S., are still prone to outages, as California’s experience reminds us. To be sure, the situation in California is extreme. The necessity for power cuts to reduce fire risk follows years of underinvestment in equipment and safety at PG&E. But issues with electricity reliability are not unique to California. Customers in Maine and Florida, for example, averaged 40 hours of power cuts in 2017. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there will be a nearly $95 billion investment gap in electricity grid modernization across the U.S. by 2020, increasing the risk of blackouts.

Of course, fuel supplies are vulnerable, too. Pipelines can rupture, hurricanes can damage offshore platforms, and geopolitical instability can disrupt oil flows. Locally, when the power goes out, gas pumps stop pumping. Indeed, when the fuel supply is disrupted, the most frequent cause is loss of electrical power, which is why New York recently required gasoline stations to have backup generators. 

Still, the shift to electrification can exacerbate some of these fuel-supply vulnerabilities. It would be far more difficult to power electric vehicles with generators in an emergency than gas stations, for example, given that they are charged more diffusely at homes than at centralized charging stations.  Moreover, the average car with a full gasoline tank can run for twice as long without refilling as an average fully charged EV. 

Oil shortages of the 1970s are a far more remote possibility in today’s highly interconnected global oil market. Furthermore, unlike electricity, when gasoline and diesel supply in a certain location is disrupted, other supplies may be brought in by other means like truck or barge from neighboring areas—assuming price signals provide the right economic incentive. Battery technology has improved dramatically, but electricity is more expensive and difficult to transport and store than liquid fuel for long periods.

Let’s remember as well that climate change is a global problem. A ton of greenhouse gas emissions contributes equally to the problem regardless of where it comes from. This means that keeping temperature rise in check will require widespread electrification of transportation not just in the U.S., but around the world. And the electricity system in many emerging markets is far less reliable than it is in the U.S. If you think recent power cuts may pose a barrier to electric vehicle uptake in California, imagine being a driver in Pakistan where electricity outages average more than 13 hours per day. 

To be clear, electricity reliability concerns are not a reason to delay the electrification of transportation, buildings and other parts of the clean energy economy. Rather, California’s electricity crisis is a reminder that policymakers and industry need to prioritize improving electricity system reliability and resilience. 

Following the oil shortages of the 1970s, countries came together and agreed to hold oil in strategic reserves to prevent similar supply crises in the future. Replacing strategic crude and refined product stocks with electricity storage of equal capacity is neither feasible nor cost-effective. 

Rather, policymakers need to prioritize closing the current grid investment shortfalls and boosting reliability and resilience by building new transmission lines to relieve system bottlenecks and eliminate single points of system failure; expanding the use of microgrids and energy storage; leveraging grid modernization technologies; creating incentives for demand-side management and distributed generation; improving maintenance and system operation; and introducing new modeling and technology tools (such as artificial intelligence) to predict problems before they occur. 

Electrifying the transportation sector will not happen if motorists worry that they won’t be able to reliably fuel up their cars. Assuaging those concerns requires regulators to prioritize investments to modernize our grids to improve our energy security. Northern California’s decade of planned blackouts should serve as a wake-up call to regulators everywhere to redouble efforts to boost the reliability and resilience of the electricity system in order to support the low-carbon transition.


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Op-eds & Essays Climate Change

Why Our Electrical System Needs to Get Ready for a Lower-Carbon Future