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Winter 2023: The Future of the Energy Grid

Vantage Point

Scott Borden Grover


  • Highlights articles in “The Future of the Energy Grid” issue of NR&E.
  • Discusses ways to bring the grid and the nation’s energy supply farther into a future without carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Vantage Point
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When the editors of Natural Resources & Environment selected this issue’s theme—The Future of the Energy Grid—for the 2022–23 volume, Winter Storm Uri and Hurricane Ida were fresh in our rearview mirror. As was the susceptibility of the nation’s electric grid to disruption. Operators have always known this. As David K.A. Mordecai, PhD, points out in his article for this issue, when electricity production fails to match consumer demand, the frequency of the system falls outside normal parameters. Unmitigated, these variances can lead to power outages, some by design (think preventative measures intended to protect sensitive equipment from being damaged); others not (think the blackout that darkened New York City in 2003). Of course, you don’t need a doctoral degree (or be an engineer) to recognize the accessibility of the world’s power systems to the destructive powers of nature or, as we sadly watch, an aggressor tactically bent on returning a modern society to the 19th century. Indeed, just the other day saboteurs attacked substations in North Carolina with gunfire, disrupting electricity service to approximately 40,000 customers.

The grid though is repairable, and relative to its complexity, restoration processes move efficiently. That is not to say that improvements cannot be had. Quite the contrary, operators and regulators alike occupy much of their time trying to discern ways to bring the grid and the nation’s energy supply farther into a future without carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. The authors in this issue together have comprehensive thoughts on the matter. We are presented with ideas on how to better facilitate the development and integration of clean and distributed energy resources, and in a way that maintains the integrity and reliability of energy supply. We are offered strategies designed to properly account for the rights of Indigenous peoples, and to mitigate the risks brought by the inevitable NIMBY lurking around the corner. We are invited to explore approaches to lessen the energy cost burden that a rapid transition of the grid and the energy supply will exacerbate (at least in the short term), and enable a more just transition, not only for the people affected by the shift, but the industries that may find themselves without a chair when a zero-carbon world arrives.

One recurrent theme you will see as you read this issue’s selection of feature articles concerns simplification of the regulatory process. As lawyers, we know that land is less likely where the work lies. But if evolution is going to happen rapidly, harmony must improve. A tough ask, to be sure, when the system you wish to move forward comprises the wildly diverse network of electron and fuel delivery production, transmission and distribution systems crisscrossing the country, and saying nothing of the competing economic interests that must coalesce to cause the deployment of investment in an already capitally intensive market. But it is the sort of challenge the most innovative welcome with relish.

Nikola Tesla comes to mind. There are others examples certainly, but as you navigate this issue and the hurdles that face the realization of a future grid, you might wonder how nice it would be if the Wardenclyffe Tower had come to fruition, and we had wireless electricity at our disposal. You might also wonder if thinkers, like our authors and across the industry, believe we have the pieces of the puzzle laid out and ready for assembly. Maybe we need another Nikola to help push things forward. Or maybe we just need to focus on the end goal and really get to work.