Gridlock: Slow power grid upgradation could delay entire clean energy transition


Picture a fairly common occurrence in present times - you have just left your home for a trip to catch some sunshine and waves at the beach. The journey is long and beautiful, and your flagship smartphone runs out of charge, while you are busy taking pictures and streaming a podcast, long before your dream destination arrives. As you reach into your travel pack, you are stunned to realise you forgot to bring the charging cable. Now imagine, this person is a country, the device clean energy, and the absent cable is a power grid capable of connecting the device to its energy source. Much like charging cables, the power grid had until recently been treated like an optional extra when ordering the latest round of decarbonisation upgrades to augment a geography’s clean energy generation capacity.

The pace at which the renewable energy (RE) transition pathways, particularly solar PV, and wind, are being adopted and scaled, is not reflected in the progress towards upgrades to grids, which haven’t been updated in decades even in developed economies. This is leading to a situation where new clean energy projects could take from a few years to a decade, or longer, before they can be connected to the grid and actually transmit renewable electricity.

The power grid, a connected network of power transmission lines, substations, transformers, and in certain cases, storage solutions, is used by power utilities, and distributors to provide electricity to consumers. How could their pace of grid upgradation impact the transition to clean energy, without negatively impacting the state of energy security, and ultimately meeting Net Zero 2050 emissions goals? What is needed to overcome this speedbump? Let’s find out:

Watt’s causing what?

Transmission delay: Delays related to permits and approvals which allow connecting new renewable energy generation infrastructure to the grid range from a few years in places including the US to about 15 years in some parts of the UK, before they can plug their clean energy in. These long lead times have so far been the norm, and not the exception. The permit processes in most geographies are regarded as convoluted, long-winding, with the added mix of community opposition at the location of the infrastructure.

Ageing grids: Grids across the globe had last witnessed strong, rapid growth in the period following WWII. In the US, for example, a majority of its three major grids was built in the 1960s-70s, and at present, more than 70% of the total power transmission lines there are at least 25 years old. Similarly, major grids across geographies haven’t seen any significant updates over the last few decades, other than local ones that focus on reaching more customers within closed areas, rather than connecting with long-distance lines that might offer more efficient, cleaner electricity.

Policy alarm: Geographies across the world have realised the need for grid upgrades and started speeding the processes through incentivised schemes and public-facing campaigns for greater acceptance of the multitude of projects required. For example, in the UK, the Great Grid Upgrade was very recently announced to combat the growing need of an incremental clean energy ecosystem. The UK has some of the longest grid connection wait times.

Capacity vs reality: A strong power grid can be regarded as the backbone of the energy transition. It can prove to be the difference between installed capacities, and actual clean energy generation in a geography. Take China for example – the country recently announced that 50.9% of its installed power generation capacity is now based on non-fossil fuel sources. However, in its actual energy consumption mix, non-renewable coal is still the top source, at 56.2%. Faster connection to the grids for the renewable energy projects can change that.

Store for later: Long-term energy storage solutions could also play a key role in the transformation of energy supply, if indeed the grid upgradation continues at the pace which it is following on, presently. Energy storage is seen as good solution to augment the continuous supply of power from intermittent clean energy sources including solar, and wind. Traditional power lines and grids function on fixed high volumes of electricity which have so far been generated from fossil fuels and nuclear plants. However, these lines also require a minimum baseload to continue transmitting and ensure fewer power outages.

Supply chain and skill issues: With a limited, steady stream of power grid upgrades so far across the globe, the supplies and skilled labour required to augment power grids never ran short. However, with the recent spurt in demands across geographies almost simultaneously, the strains on critical component supply chains as well the requisite quantum of labour skilled and trained in installing the components are both causing bottlenecks to the pace of grid upgradation. This is major concern as power grids and storage industries are billed to be the biggest employers in the power sector by the end of this decade.

Cyber security: With increasing digitalisation, the power sector will also need a strong influx of skilled IT workers for building and maintaining task automation, machine learning, and AI assistance software for utilities, as well as for cybersecurity. Power utilities already account for 20% of overall cyberattacks across major industries. Such utilities will have to focus on securing their networks as a cyberattack on a critical power grid could cripple entire regions without electricity.

Breaking the gridlock

Meeting the grid preparedness targets will ensure energy security and help overcome the anxiety of another global energy crisis as fossil fuels continue to be reduced away from energy consumption mixes, and the needs for more and cleaner energy keep growing.

It is both a concern that governments and power distributors across geographies are collectively only waking up now to the reality of grid upgradation needs, but it is also a relief that most have, and jumped into action. However, speed is not the singular solution, neither is throwing money at the problem and hoping it fixes itself. This could have a disastrous effect on the global move to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and ultimately impact the achievement of Net Zero 2050 climate change mitigation targets.

The grid represents resilience, one of the overarching pillars of a clean, green energy future – efficiency, security, and resilience, intersecting at the ultimate target of sustainability. And resilience cannot be sped up without overcoming the compromises of these other essential strengths.

Many geographies have announced funds running into the deca-billions and some even into hecta-billions for grid augmentation and upgrades, the high cost of hastily building power infrastructure will result in the same being passed onto the consumer, potentially defeating the purpose of energy security.

This is the time for pooling resources, experience, expertise and treating the advent of this new renewable energy economy as a chance at upping the collaborative problem-solving capabilities of this planet’s residents. There are two distinct approaches we continue to witness in the bigger picture – those that would clean up house before jumping to provide services to others, and those beginning with collaborative efforts to shore up themselves and their allies to build towards a common base target.

The rapid green energy industrialisation presents hitherto unprecedented opportunities for those engaged with either approach. So long as they are inter-connected with the larger aim of ensuring the steps of their chosen decarbonisation pathways align towards the common goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, by 2050.

Get decarbonization publications delivered to your inbox by filling out the form below.

Abhishek Samuel
Manager, Decarbonization Practice Posts

Latest Posts