Clean energy technologies threaten to overwhelm the grid. Here’s how it can adapt.

Published onDecember 6, 2018

The US power grid is, by some estimates, the largest machine in the world, a continent-spanning wonder of the modern age. And despite its occasional well-publicized failures, it is remarkably reliable, delivering energy to almost every American, almost every second of every day. This is an especially remarkable accomplishment given that, until very recently, almost none of that power could be stored. It all has to be generated, sent over miles of wires, and delivered to end users at the exact second they need it, in a perfectly synchronized dance. Given the millions of Americans, their billions of electrical devices, and the thousands of miles of electrical wires involved, well, it’s downright amazing.

Still, as you may have heard, the grid is stressed out. Blackouts due to extreme weather (hurricanes, floods, wildfires) are on the rise, in part due to climate change, which is only going to get worse. The need for local resilience in the face of climate chaos is growing all the time. What’s more, the energy world is changing rapidly. A system designed around big, centralized power plants and one-way power flows is grinding against the rise of smarter, cleaner technologies that offer new ways to generate and manage energy at the local level (think solar panels and batteries). Unless old systems are reconceived and redesigned, they could end up slowing down, and increasing the cost of, the transition to clean electricity (and hampering the fight against climate change). Energy professionals are aware that strains are starting to show. Energy sector reform is all the buzz these days, with active discussions and experimentation around rate design, market reforms, subsidies, regulations, and legislative targets. But according to Lorenzo Kristov, the rise of new energy technologies should occasion a step back and a fresh, holistic perspective — not just a reactive scramble on policy. Now in private practice as an energy consultant, Kristov saw the challenges facing the grid up close as a longtime principal at the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which runs California’s electricity grid.