Grid Needs Upgrades for New Energy Sources

  • Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

February 20, 2015

Gregory Reed says the electricity grid needs an upgrade. And he should know. He's Director of the Electric Power Initiative at the University of Pittsburgh, and leads the Grid Technologies Collaborative for the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Reed says the electricity grid was built between the 1930s and 1970s, "Much of the equipment and infrastructure that we rely on is still from that era," he said.

For many years, Reed says the U.S. didn't invest in the grid. And now the electricity supply is changing. Many coal plants are being decommissioned, while there's an increase in power from natural gas and other sources.

"Most of the new plants aren't being located close to where we use electricity, like the traditional system that was developed. So we have to move the electricity much further than today than we have in the past, and we don't have a grid infrastructure in place to be able to do that."

When consumers create energy, it changes the equation

As people become more self-reliant, with solar panels and micro-grids, they are sending energy back to grid, "Which is really a paradigm we never had in the utility industry. So a lot has changed even in the last five years," Reed said.

He says more extreme natural disasters are also exposing the vulnerabilities of the overhead electric system. "Every time there's a big storm or a hurricane, what comes with that is a loss of power, and that makes it very difficult to recover."

While only a small percentage of our energy currently comes from alternative sources, such as solar, wind and biomass power, but Reed says it's growing rapidly. As it grows, he says it will impact electric reliability.

"The grid was designed to deliver electricity one-way, from large, centralized plants to us as consumers. Now with us as consumers moving it back the other way, we don't have the technology and the infrastructure to deal with that very efficiently right now." 

Reed says the more energy produced by smaller, distributed sources, the more it will encourage upgrades to the grid.

"If we do it right, it can actually add to reliability."

Reed says if distributed energy sources are balanced with large, stable providers, it can make the power supply more secure.

AC/DC

His team is looking to converting  homes and businesses from AC power to DC. Reed says an increasing number of our devices, laptops, TV screens, appliances, data centers, "All of this, it really just operates on a few volts of DC power, yet we continue to plug all this in, and supply it from a legacy AC network. We are used to plugging things into a 120 volts, 60 hertz system, that has to then convert that AC to DC, where it's used in the end devices."

Reed says they're looking to install more DC power, and to make the conversion from AC more  efficient.