During the 2018 session, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that seeks to promote the modernization of our state’s electrical grid. Called the Grid Transformation and Security Act, SB 966 also includes some financial boosts to renewable energy sources and energy efficiency initiatives. However, it is imperative that these investments go to the right place. Grid modernization and reliability is vitally important in today’s increasingly cyber-connected world, particularly when you consider that disabling just nine nodes could bring down the flow of energy across the entire nation.
Protecting the grid from cyber-attacks can be achieved by adding renewables, particularly distributed renewables, to Virginia’s energy mix. Let’s take a quick look at the way the energy flow has traditionally worked in Virginia and across the United States.
Our electrical grid connects energy generation through transmission lines, substations, transformers, and distribution lines to the end user – you and me. This has been the traditional way in which electricity is generated – from nuclear, natural gas, and other sources – and distributed to consumers. In the past, electricity could only flow one way, from producer to consumer.
While this system has functioned well enough for many years, it is inherently vulnerable. If a transmission or distribution line goes down, regardless of whether it is brought down by a natural or manmade disaster or act, consumers have no option but to wait for it to be fixed.
This can be circumvented by adding small-scale renewables, and other distributed energy resources, such as energy efficiency programs, demand response, and storage to our energy solutions. These resources can help when traditional power producers are experiencing excess demand, which happens more often that you hear about, that threatens reliability. Imagine a particularly hot day in the middle of a Virginia summer when overheated residents are cranking up their air conditioners across the state. These spikes in demand on summer days traditionally have been a cause for concern for utilities, but they happen to coincide with the ideal conditions for solar panels. Whether a business or residence is using panels to reduce its own power draw or actually has enough power to send back to the grid, the result is a reduction in demand.
A second component of grid reliability is resilience, which generally means the ability to bounce back from a harmful event. In the traditional paradigm for energy production and consumption, if there is an event that harms the system anywhere in that process, the end users will be without power. However, with the development of more distributed resources, such as those listed above and microgrids, there are more sources of energy to pull from to mitigate the impacts of a blackout. Storage, wind, and solar, in particular, can be pivotal in providing power to a home, a business, or even a whole community in the case of an outage, because they can operate completely independently from the power-producing utility.
Modernizing the grid to support these distributed resources and to take advantage of newly available technologies is critical. Ensuring that our utilities are investing wisely and are focused on a reliable grid that can implement distributed energy resources should be a priority for the General Assembly this session.