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Winter 2023: The Future of the Energy Grid

Perspectives: Electric Grid of the Future—Critical Considerations

Shari Gribbin


  • Considers of the safety and reliability, security, and cost effectiveness of grid modernization efforts.
  • Discusses the rapidly increasing cyber, physical, and supply-chain security threats to the electric grid.
  • Addresses legacy assets costs and other mechanisms as micro-grids and distributed generation are restructured.
Perspectives: Electric Grid of the Future—Critical Considerations
Ashley Cooper via Getty Images

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As we move rapidly toward modernization of the electric grid, the biggest responsibility we have is to ensure that every aspect of this transition integrates the fundamental principles that have for decades governed the delivery of electric service by utilities as one of the most critical infrastructures: ensuring safe, reliable, secure, cost-effective service accessible to all. The recent introduction of so many new technologies and of many nontraditional utility stakeholders to the discussion on grid modernization means that it will remain important for all involved parties to be persistently reminded of these fundamentals. Regulators are working quickly to create new jurisdictional and regulatory frameworks that allow for the rapid adoption of new technologies, while incumbent and legacy asset owners are concerned this process is moving too quickly to adequately consider the implications for these fundamentals. How these two sets of seemingly competing interests are resolved is a complex discussion, but consideration of the safety and reliability, security, and cost effectiveness of grid modernization efforts might be a good starting point for building consensus and modernizing the grid in an effective and responsible way.

First, new operational assets and technology must be designed, built, and integrated into the systems without compromising the safety and reliability of existing assets, while also ensuring the new assets can meet the current high standards. While many legacy assets are designed and built to established engineering specifications, we are seeing blind spots and other gaps as modern grid transformation occurs and is scaled that need to be closed to ensure this modernization occurs without impacting safety or reliability and without damaging the legacy assets that remain in service. This is a high priority focus for the major regulators of our grids: the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), Department of Energy (DOE), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and state regulators. These risks should be at the center of any discussion regarding grid modernization.

The rapidly increasing cyber, physical, and supply-chain security threats to the electric grid are especially important and bring into sharp focus the critical nature of security capabilities for all power and utility assets along with other critical infrastructure. The electric industry’s bulk power subsector has been subject to cybersecurity regulation since 2010, and we have begun to see an increasing level of cybersecurity maturity across the utility sector. The DOE has pushed a significant amount of funding into cybersecurity guidance and resources to support the renewable sector. The DOE Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response and Solar Energy Technologies Office have made significant investments in this area over the last year, including funding several new initiatives through the National Laboratories.

Finally, it has become apparent that current rate recovery models are not necessarily designed for the grid of the future. Regulators must ensure that, as we restructure to micro-grids and distributed generation, the costs for legacy assets or other mechanisms used to ensure safe and reliable service are updated and rate structures are effectively designed to account for a model where much of the primary source of power is occurring in a direct-to-customer framework.

Two sure ways to support each of these goals are to work toward better integration of the renewable sector into the existing stakeholder models and to provide better education surrounding electric service fundamental principles (safe, secure, reliable, cost-effective) of this critical “grid of the future” sub-sector to allow for more complete, long-term solutions. This industry has always been built and driven by the most collaborative of people who take immense pride in “keeping the lights on” for everyone, and there is no reason that should change now.