Report: Grid investments not ready for renewable surge

Source: By Christian Vasquez, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Governments worldwide are failing to invest enough in their power grids to keep up with the clean energy transition, according to a report released this morning by the International Energy Agency.

The Paris-based agency’s “Power Systems in Transition” report calls for a more comprehensive and flexible approach to keep the lights on as the electric sector undergoes “its most dramatic transformation since its creation” over a century ago.

The report cites structural upheaval brought by the rapid shift to renewable energy resources like solar and wind, the increasing number of digital technologies exposing the industry to cybersecurity risks, and the impacts of climate change.

“Emerging trends in the electricity sector — namely the energy transition, cyber threats and climate change — will require a rethinking of traditional frameworks for ensuring electricity security,” IEA said, concluding that existing approaches “will not be sufficient in the face of these changes.”

IEA is set to unveil the report at a global energy conference in Singapore. The agency touts the report as the first to consider how climate change, cybersecurity risks and the energy transition work together.

“The challenge for governments and utilities is to update policies, regulations and market designs to ensure that power systems remain secure throughout clean energy transitions,” IEA said.

To meet the increase in electricity production from wind and solar, governments will need to invest more into grid networks and flexible resources such as demand response and battery storage, IEA said. According to the group’s “sustainable development” scenario, renewables could account for 45% of total generation by 2040 (Energywire, Oct. 13).

“Current investment trends do not support such requirements and will need to be upgraded accordingly, sooner rather than later,” IEA said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated funding problems.

IEA pointed to the recent blackouts in California caused by a record-setting heat wave and a lack of sufficient planning around solar energy (Energywire, Aug. 18). However, the agency noted that “experience in a number of countries has shown that variable renewables can be reliably integrated in power systems.”

IEA said that “climate-driven disruption” can result in higher-than-normal losses for transmission and distribution networks, physically damage equipment or reduce the ability of different areas of the grid to transfer power to one another. That transfer capacity posed challenges for California this summer as grid operators were unable to import electricity from neighboring states grappling with the same, regionwide heat wave that strained available generation.

“In many countries the increasing frequency or intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, wildfires, cyclones and floods are the dominant cause of large-scale outages,” IEA said.

Investments are sorely needed to make a “climate-resilient” grid, IEA said, especially as the benefits and costs of climate change are unevenly distributed.

“Policy makers need to fulfill a critical role in building resilient electricity systems by adopting effective policy measures that can prevent a potential ‘market failure,’ while collaborating with business,” IEA said.

‘Substantial’ cyberthreats

The growing number of distributed energy resources and internet-facing devices is another potential problem for energy security, IEA said. A blitz of Internet of Things devices, such as smart thermostats and meters, alongside “grid-edge” distributed technologies like electric vehicles and solar panels are giving hackers more places to attack.

Electric vehicle chargers have been an increasing concern for cybersecurity experts, particularly around medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, as they warn that the connectivity and high voltages mark a new access point for hackers to attack the grid (Energywire, June 17).

“With cyber threats already substantial and growing, it is imperative to strengthen cyber resilience measures and make them a central part of the planning and operation of power systems,” the IEA report said.

One example of increased connectivity is in California, where state regulators recently required that new solar and storage installations use smart inverters that can be connected remotely.

One of the major hurdles for the electric industry is scant or incomplete publicly available data on the hacking threat, IEA said. Some cyberattacks go unreported to regulators or authorities, and those that do may have different definitions of a “cyber incident,” the report said.

IEA described the nature of cyberthreats to power grids in stark terms.

“The threat of cyberattacks on electricity systems is substantial and growing. Threat actors are becoming increasingly sophisticated at carrying out attacks,” the agency said. “A successful cyberattack could trigger the loss of control over devices and processes, in turn causing physical damage and widespread service disruption.”