New U.S. DOE report offers pathways to support the electricity system of the future

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new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine provides a suite of recommendations for improving the U.S. electric power system in light of the changing energy landscape. The report also recommends ways to accelerate innovations in technology, policy, and business models as global supply chains shift.

Currently the U.S. electricity system is confusing says The Future of Electric Power in the United States. It consists of utilities and other entities operating in a variety of regulated and competitive market environments. Some are investor-owned yet regulated by public policy, while some are publicly owned and regulated more directly through private ownership and state and federal laws. This heterogeneity makes it difficult to generalize about many aspects of the system across the country, engage in cohesive long-term planning, or develop a common set of actions that is relevant to all parties, the report says.

Report authors emphasized the need for better understanding of how the system will evolve and looked at drivers of change, such as:

  • the possible large growth in demand for electricity;
  • efforts to decarbonize the U.S. economy;
  • a desire to reduce social inequities;
  • concerns about the impacts of the energy transition on employment; and
  • developments in grid distribution and stability.

The report recommends that Congress and states support the evolution of planning for and siting of regional transmission facilities in the form of a national transmission policy. 

The report also says that congress should instruct the DOE to create a task force that includes regulators and the electricity industry to identify new legislation needed to help understand how significant physical or cyber disruptions occur in the grid. The report also found that multiple recommendations from the 2017 National Academies report Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electricity System have not yet been implemented and are still relevant.

“No one can predict precisely what the electricity system will look like several decades from now, but there are a number of technical advances and regulatory changes that would facilitate a variety of developments for the electric power system,” said M. Granger Morgan, Hamerschlag University Professor of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “It is our committee’s hope that, over the decades to come, this report will help to make America’s critically important electric power system safer and more secure, cleaner and more sustainable, more affordable and equitable, and more reliable and resilient.”

The report also recommends that congress double monetary support for basic science that relates to electric power and triple monetary support for applied developments and demonstrations related to electric power.

The report includes a wide-ranging set of recommendations for DOE, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Congress, state entities, and industry, divided into five major areas of need:

  1. Improve our understanding of how the system is evolving. Forecasting tools need to be capable of adaptation to account for the different ways that the grid will evolve in different regions. The report calls for research on changes in demand for electricity, grid modernization to support decarbonization, and building analytic tools and running simulations of evolving grid systems.
  2. Ensure that electricity service remains clean and sustainable, and reliable and resilient. Reducing CO2 emissions and increasing sustainability, in part through renewable resources, will remain a focus in the coming decades. Greater resilience and reliability is also a priority. FERC should designate a central entity to establish standards for the reliability of the nation’s natural gas delivery system. DOE’s research program in grid cybersecurity is an important source of innovation to improve the resiliency of future grid infrastructure and operations. DOE, in collaboration with industry and academia, should create a research and development priority road map to develop and demonstrate new technologies for a resilient grid that will survive a cyber incident while sustaining critical functionality. 
  3. Improve understanding of how people use electricity and sustain the “social compact” to keep electricity affordable and equitable in the face of technological changes. Potential changes in the grid may have a disproportionate effect on users with lower incomes, exposing the need to devise regulatory responses in light of changing circumstances. The report calls for increased utility regulator attention to and assessment of how changes in the electrical system affect energy access, equity, and affordability. The federal government should increase investment in understanding the impacts of energy transitions on workers and for workforce education and training in the changing electrical system.
  4. Facilitate innovations in technology, policy, and business models relevant to the power system. New technologies such as clean generation and energy storage can enable large changes in the way the power system is organized and operated. Understanding how electricity consumers behave and how such trends affect system loads is emerging as an important challenge. The report recommends federal and state support for social science research and analysis related to technology, policy, and business models. It also calls for enhanced experimentation and information sharing on innovations in those areas.
  5. Accelerate innovations in technology in light of shifting global supply chains and the influx of disruptive technologies. In order to support and encourage international collaboration in energy research and technology development, the report recommends the White House establish an interagency process to review all arrangements that limit international research collaborations and make reforms to allow for greater interaction between U.S. researchers and those in other countries. The federal government should also enact policies to move technology manufacturing and supply chains back to the United States while recognizing that innovation and manufacturing are global. Additionally, massive new private and public investments are needed in innovation, especially for more cutting-edge technologies on which the future of the grid will depend. The report recommends a tripling of support for applied electric power development, increased support of advanced technologies that can support multiple pathways for the electrical system’s evolution, setting standards for critical equipment that is imported from other countries, and greater encouragement of international collaboration on energy research.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on the Future of Electric Power in the U.S. — was sponsored by the U.S Department of Energy. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

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