In 2019, equipment failures left millions without power across Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. In 2020, a malware attack on a power grid load dispatch center caused blackouts across Mumbai, India’s largest city. And in 2022, widespread power outages caused chaos in the State of California in the United States (U.S.) as the combination of a disastrous wildfire and high electricity demand overwhelmed the grid.
Diverse threats regularly test the resilience of our electrical power infrastructure. Some of those threats – accidents, equipment failures and human error – are acknowledged and for the most part, well-understood. Others are evolving concerns, including extreme weather, cyberattacks, geopolitics, rapid demand growth, underinvestment, and the advancing transformation to a decarbonized electricity system.
Our new research – surveying close to 850 senior executives, from nine industries and 22 countries – shows that improving power grid cybersecurity is the leading priority for electrical power grids.
Yet there is a gap between the expected threat and our current level of preparedness. Although many are concerned about cybersecurity, only 24 percent say they have an advanced level for their operational assets. That number drops to just 16 percent for respondents in North America. A similar story can be told for another growing threat, climate risk, where only 20 percent feel they are advanced in their level of preparedness.
The need for more flexibility and balance
The addition of renewables creates a need for infrastructure assets that can help balance the variability between generation and demand. Among the newer threats to the resilience of our electricity grids, failures can lead to blackouts and grid overloads. Typically, achieving balance involves adding flexibility with storage assets, interconnectors between energy systems, and diversifying the types of energy generation used.
We have several solutions and technologies available and many more in development to support the transition. Where one approach, say interconnections between energy systems, is not viable, we have alternatives ready today. We have a clean energy carrier in green hydrogen and we have proven storage solutions like pumped-hydro and lithium-ion batteries.
By 2030, the Scottish Government aims to increase offshore wind energy generation by five times with around 30 gigawatts of projects supported through the ScotWind leasing program. This will produce far more energy than required in the region, however the United Kingdom (U.K.) transmission network would need costly and time-consuming upgrades to move this energy to other parts of the country. Plans are in development to use surplus wind power to produce green hydrogen, which can then be moved by pipes and trucks for use in flexible power generation and industrial processes across the U.K..
Digital advances that strengthen power grid resilience
Digital technology helps to keep modern power grids balanced and stable through supply and demand fluctuations and disturbances. The key ingredients are intelligent devices, communication networks, analytical tools and automation. Together, these support three core capabilities:
1: Situational awareness
Operators will need to understand grid conditions as near to real-time as possible. This helps identify issues quickly to avoid or address outages or maximize use of lower cost and cleaner resources. Smart grid technologies allow utilities to almost immediately identify which customers are out of power during an outage. They can also rapidly isolate the point of failure using analytics, thereby reducing the duration of outages. This means there is no reliance on customers reporting outages, and no need for utilities to drive along power lines visually searching for damage.
Advances in computing, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, allow utilities to harness data in powerful ways. Distribution state estimation — a process that determines real-time operating conditions in a distribution network, based on various sensors and measurements being fed through mathematical algorithms — is being pursued by leading utilities to model grid conditions and support better decisions. Machine learning systems can be trained on normal data streams and then used to automatically flag unusual conditions or anomalies. They can also estimate missing data or identify flawed data, for example from a failing sensor, to keep the system running.
2: Automatic agility
Transmission, substation and distribution automation devices are powerful tools for improved reliability and resilience. Utilities like ComEd in Illinois and Florida Power and Light Company, both in the United States, have installed smart switches that divide up distribution feeders — the infrastructure that takes high-voltage electricity from substations and delivers it to end-users. These devices communicate with each other in teams, allowing them to identify the location of a fault and automatically isolate that section while ensuring power is flowing to the rest of the customers on the line.
3: Risk identification
Utilities can now assess the health of assets with much greater precision than in the past. Data from smart meters and other grid devices can be used to identify transformers that have been perpetually overloaded and may be more prone to failure. Variations in voltage across the network can also be used as clues to discover where a transformer may be leaking oil.
Beyond individual pieces of equipment, entire distribution feeders can be assessed for specific risks. San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) in California uses a wildfire risk model to assess the likelihood and consequences of wildfire ignition across whole feeder sections. This allows investments to be prioritized based on risk levels.
These digital advances can help to close the gap between expected threats and our current preparedness level. But rather than a single area, resilience emerges from a broad collection of designs, assets, practices and procedures. These span across maintenance, redundancy, security, recovery and readiness, collectively contributing to an electricity grid’s ability to withstand and recover from disruptions — ultimately ensuring a safe and reliable supply of electricity.
How to get power grids ready for prime timeSolar and wind power are forecasted to supply more than a third of all electricity by 2030. To reach this ambitious target, we'll need a tremendous investment in global grid infrastructure.Solar and wind power are forecasted to supply more than a third of all electricity by 2030. To reach this ambitious target, we'll need a tremendous investment in global grid infrastructure.