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Preparing the Grid for Energy Transition (North America)

27 February at 11am-1pm EST / 4-6 pm GMT


Preparing the US grid for a clean energy future

Consultants must bring together multiple stakeholders in efforts to modernize a vulnerable and fragmented US energy grid. 


Over the next 10 years an estimated $2.5tn of investment will be required to support increased renewable energy and battery storage infrastructure in the US, including an estimated 600,000 circuit miles of AC transmission lines and 70,000 new substations.


This was the backdrop to the first of a series of Environment Analyst webinars on the energy transition. The event focused on the requirements for an upgraded US energy grid, and was chaired by Jennifer Obertino, senior VP and global energy practice lead at AECOM.


Obertino began by pointing out that globally, modernizing the grid — or indeed building it from scratch — will require an estimated $21.4tn of investment over the next 30 years. 


“Grid modernization is the backbone for decarbonisation and for electrification,” said Obertino. “For large scale deployment of renewable energy we have to be able to upgrade transmission lines.” This, she said, means bringing together a variety of partners who may not have previously worked together — for example developers, utilities and other branches of the private sector. “We’ve got to scale up on this,” she said.


Yes, scale up, agreed other speakers on the panel — but also find new ways to meet the challenge. “It’s a fine time to be in the transition space,” noted Mike Case, national business line executive leader for energy at WSP, “but we have to find the right balance as we work out the grid of the future. This can mean scaling up the standard distribution model but also looking to decarbonize at a more local level, for example using localized micro grids.” 


With around 66,000 staff globally, WSP, said Case, is supporting the full grid life cycle towards transition, from planning and permitting to construction management.

Solarized microgrids


Craig Lewis, an executive director of the Clean Coalition, agreed that microgrids could be a neat solution to grid modernization, particularly in areas like California where summer fires and other climate events are becoming more common. “In terms of resilience to these climate change events, going local really matters,” he said. “A solar microgrid or a community microgrid, for example, can cover a target grid area, from one block to an entire city.”


Lewis presented the example of the Santa Barbara Unified School District in California where a number of schools were being serviced by six solar microgrid sites in an area vulnerable to electricity outages because of extreme fire risk. “The plan is to solarize the entire district — 21 schools in all plus a food distribution center — and this is what’s going to keep people going in the event of a natural disaster,” he said. 


Over the estimated 28-year lifespan of the microgrids there would be an estimated direct energy saving of some $8m, plus an added-value resilience saving of around $6.5m, suggested Lewis.


At the other end of the country, in the northeast, the development of offshore wind facilities is triggering its own grid connection priorities, said Ryan Gibbons, senior manager, business development at Avangrid, a member of the Iberdrola Group. “Offshore wind is a great source of energy but right now there’s no way to connect it. We need to build transmission lines to get wind energy to the people who need it. We currently have record levels of deployment but we will have to build at pace for at least the next decade to get this first part of the job done.”


Community engagement


Avangrid, which describes itself as a sustainable energy company, is currently constructing Vineyard Wind, the first commercial scale offshore wind farm in the US. In January 2024 the company announced that the project was delivering power to the New England grid for the first time. Once completed, the project’s 62 turbines should generate 806 MW, enough to power 400,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts. A key priority, said Gibbons, is to reduce uncertainty around grid connection. Uncertain permitting timelines can lead to project delays and an increased risk to stakeholders.


All agreed that projects of this kind could take decades to ramp up. Mike Case called for more work on community engagement, adding that “we need to use all the tools in our tool set to reach net zero”. 


Carbon capture, battery storage and the development of hydrogen to support baseload energy supplies were also discussed by panelists as key potential elements in a modernized clean energy grid.


The goal, added Obertino, is: “reliability, resilience, affordability and secure power for all.” Consultants, the panel agreed, would continue to play a key part in ensuring that a well-connected, modernized grid was part of the solution. 

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