Grid Modernization and the Path to a Cleaner Future

Grid Modernization and the Path to a Cleaner Future
By Christopher Mesfin, NECEC Spring Policy Intern

As the world grapples with the urgent need to address climate change, the Northeast region stands at a critical juncture. With its dense population centers, vibrant economy, and commitment to environmental stewardship, the area has long been a trailblazer in pursuing clean energy and sustainability in the US and the world. However, to truly achieve a greener future, we must focus on a cornerstone of our energy infrastructure: the electric power grid.

Grid modernization is not merely an option; it is a necessity. Our current electric grid, mostly built decades ago, was designed for a different era characterized by centralized fossil fuel power generation, limited renewables, and passive consumption.

Today, as we transition to cleaner energy sources and incorporate distributed resources, our grid must evolve to meet the more complex demands of a 21st-century electric system. We must modernize the electric grid to accommodate and harness the power of distributed clean energy resources and battery storage.

First, many renewable energy sources cannot provide a consistent stream of power due to intermittency. For example, solar panels can only produce electricity while the sun is out, and wind turbines can only work when wind blows. This issue is unique to the future as fossil fuel generation does not have a comparable problem. Additionally, we must integrate distributed energy resources, like rooftop solar, into the grid. Distributed generation was a rarity in a grid dominated by fossil fuels, but studies show that distributed generation is ever-increasing.

The importance of grid modernization cannot be overstated. A modernized grid is more resilient and capable of withstanding extreme weather events and cyber threats. It is also more efficient, reducing energy waste and lowering consumer costs. Moreover, a smart and efficient grid empowers consumers, providing real-time information and control over their energy usage while enabling innovative pricing structures that reward conservation and flexibility.

Grid modernization is anything that fits under the broad umbrella of addressing a challenge related to integrating renewable energy and distributed energy resources into the grid and anything that may improve grid efficiency. Many policies fit these criteria, but some of the most substantial actions across the region have focused on rate design and advanced metering infrastructure.

These policies provide benefits of more accurately meeting electricity demands and gathering more accurate information about energy usage. Both benefits are crucial to the future as more accurately meeting energy demand allows for more efficiency in the grid, less wasted energy, and thus less reliance on fossil fuels. More accurate information about consumption is critical for meeting that energy demand.

Beyond these benefits, grid modernization is an impact multiplier for all other climate policies, from rate reform to building performance standards. The success of these policies is due to their reliance on the partial or complete electrification of entire sectors, such as transportation and commercial buildings. This trend towards electrification will lead to a substantial increase in electricity loads across the Northeast, as we aim to reduce the usage of fossil fuels in processes such as heating and transportation.

The Massachusetts Climate Report Card, published in December of 2023, projects that the electricity load will more than double by 2050, while some utilities expect an increase of about 150%. Increasing production requires upgrading the electricity supply systems to meet the rise in electricity demand. Grid modernization and the diffusion of technologies related to grid efficiency will be just as important, if not more essential, than the increase in renewable energy generation.

Fortunately, the Northeast is well-positioned to lead the way in grid modernization. With its tradition of innovation in clean energy, solid political consciousness on climate change, and active community engagement, the region has the tools and the talent to drive meaningful change.

Already, states like Massachusetts and Connecticut have made significant strides in advancing grid modernization initiatives, from the current Electric Sector Modernization Plan (ESMPs) process that utilities in Massachusetts are working through to the legislative dockets in Connecticut inducing investigation into Advanced Metering Infrastructure, Electricity Storage, and Rate Design.

Grid modernization has its challenges. It requires coordinated action across stakeholders, including utilities, regulators, policymakers, and consumers. It also demands significant investment, both in terms of financial resources and political will. Yet, the benefits far outweigh the costs. By modernizing our grid, we can create jobs, stimulate economic growth, and safeguard the health and well-being of our communities.

Collaboration will be exceedingly important in ensuring progress towards the grid we need to address the climate crisis. NECEC is dedicated to serving the clean energy industry as a coalition builder and a leader in creating a cleaner, more resilient, and more equitable energy future for the Northeast.

To that end, we encourage members and partners to join us at our May 23 Transitioning to the Future Grid event, the second in a series of events sponsored by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

This series explores the transition to the future grid that will follow the Commonwealth’s Electric Sector Modernization Plan process. NECEC is convening stakeholders from across the Massachusetts energy ecosystem, including public and private sector leaders, communities, utilities, technology providers, entrepreneurs, and academics to hold a dialog on how to lean on innovation and collaboration to achieve an efficient, effective, clean grid. Learn more and register here.

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