Extreme weather intensified by climate change has brought the vulnerabilities of the US electric grid front and center to the American public over the last several years. Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 exposed Texans to record cold temperatures, resulting in 246 deaths, millions without power, and $295 billion in damage. The following year, Winter Storm Elliot led to more than seven million power outages across the country. This isn’t just a winter storm problem. The number of annual blackouts has more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, most occurring during increasingly frequent and deadly summer heat waves.
When these extreme weather moments happen, a surge of electricity demand comes from people and businesses who are trying to heat or cool their homes, charge their cars, and power their businesses. The outcome? Loss of life, blackouts, skyrocketing electricity costs, and severe disruption to daily and economic activities.
The problem, and solution, is our grid. To prevent these dire scenarios, we must invest in grid resilience and reliability through an idea that is quickly gathering support from the federal to the regional and state level: ensuring grids in different regions have a minimum level of electricity that can be transferred back and forth between regions, also known as a minimum transfer capability requirement.
How does the current grid system work?
First, let’s take a step back and understand how the current grid system works. At the most basic level, the power grid is the system that sends electricity to consumers through transmission and distribution lines. In the United States, the grid system consists of three main interconnections: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and The Electric Reliability Council of Texas. These interconnections are only connected via a few transfer stations and operate independently to power the regions they’re responsible for. They are physical limits for the bulk transfer of power.
Map of the North American electricity interconnections
Map of the North American electricity interconnections from the report, “Addressing the Peak Power Problem Through Thermal Energy Storage“
Within these interconnections are regions established by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to facilitate coordinated planning and development of the country’s electric transmission system. These regions are responsible for identifying transmission needs, evaluating potential solutions, and promoting the cost-effective and reliable operation of the transmission grid.