Kansas and the Nation Need a Better Grid, Transmission Lines
Kansas is producing more renewable energy than ever before. Solar power and wind power are the biggest drivers. But getting that power from point A to point B, or - from where it's generated to where it's needed - is problematic. Commentator Scott Carlberg says Kansas and the nation need to rethink the energy grid to confront the vexing problem of transmission and distribution.
Our nation, and Kansas, can make all the renewable energy, nuclear energy, or any power it wants, but if the wires aren’t there to get power to customers, making power just doesn’t matter.
Making electricity has been in the headlines. Wind and solar are debated at state and local levels. The rising star of energy debates, though, is wires, using the parlance of the energy industry.
Transmission and distribution is the official utility industry term. Transmission lines are the large structures with multiple big lines. Distribution lines are the small offshoots that get power to homes and small businesses.
Our grid has several challenges ahead, though.
First, huge strides in research make renewable power cost-competitive to traditional power generation. That’s good.
That power goes on a power grid that frankly has not had the same attention.
Certainly, companies maintain the power grid. The problem is that the inputs on that grid are different - power now comes from places where it wasn’t generated before, like wind in western and central Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. There needs to be improved routes to users.
Second, power reliability. Common causes of blackouts are extreme weather and worn-out power lines. As a team, those causes are a problem. A delicate grid breaks easier, whether there is or isn't bad weather. Here in the Midcontinent, we certainly know extreme weather. The South and Southeast see more destructive hurricanes; the West, wildfires. The nation needs a tougher grid.
Third, electric vehicles will change grid use. Electric vehicles are about two-tenths of a percent of grid use now. They could be 24% when most of our transportation is electrified. Vehicles and our power system should adapt together.
Fourth, customers need a flexible web. The grid as built is essentially a one-way street. Power is made at big plants and sent to customers. Future power generation will be more decentralized - wind farms, solar fields, and even some home generation. Distributed Energy Resources is the industry term for that. D-E-R.
Smart homes will use power and put stored power from home on the grid to balance the system. By the way, don’t just think about home battery units, think about your electric vehicles, which also might be tapped as a power source. You're gonna' be driving a battery, not a car.
A smarter grid better resists cyber-attacks. A smart grid is self-healing, telling system operators where problems are so they can be fixed fast, at least faster than before.
So, here’s an analogy for the grid. You drive a Maserati or the best Tesla but travel on a potholed two-lane roads. Sure, you have the capability of a great ride but you just don’t get to take advantage of it.
Our grid can be a superhighway for our energy future, but we need to work together for the on-ramps.
Commentator Scott Carlberg has more than 40 years of experience in energy industry communications. He's worked in corporate communications and for nonprofit, research and higher education groups. He lives in Leawood.