The way we generate, transmit, and use electricity is changing. Driven by government policies, technological advances, and falling prices, sustainable energy sources are increasingly being used to lower emissions without compromising on reliability or affordability.
Electricity generation produces about 32 percent of total emissions in the US, and 8 percent of total emissions in Canada. As demand for electricity rises with the electrification of transportation, heating, and other activities, utilities must expand and modernize grid infrastructure while continuing to reduce the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels.
This article will highlight the progress made toward decarbonization in recent years, before exploring how changes in generating technologies will impact how utilities maintain and invest in power infrastructure.
Decarbonization and the Need for Renewable Energy
The transition to renewable and sustainable electricity generation is already well underway, and governments, utilities, and customers all recognize the need for decarbonization.
Canada is already credited with having one of the greenest electricity sectors in the world due to an abundance of hydroelectric power and nuclear, while the United States has made significant process toward decarbonization as coal-fired plants have been retired and replaced by natural gas. But to achieve ambitious government targets, both countries need to continue to invest in renewables such as photovoltaic solar (PV solar) and on-shore wind.
Until recently, however, utilities have had to balance the push toward renewables with the often competing goals of reliability and affordability.
The challenge is that technologies such as wind and solar are intermittent, highly dependent on the weather, and unable to be switched on and off in response to changes in demand. They have also been prohibitively expensive, meaning they struggle to be competitive against cheaper and more flexible coal-fired plants or natural gas facilities.
Recently, however, this balance is starting to shift.
Variable renewable energy (VRE) sources are already widely in use in many regions. Places such as Denmark or Iowa, for example, already generate more than 50 percent of their electricity from VRE sources without experiencing supply shortages or outages. In all, 12 US states generate more than 25 percent of their power from VREs, with projections showing that overall penetration will rise to more than 40 percent by 2035.
When looking at cost, the price of wind and solar is falling rapidly. A 2021 Deloitte report showed that up to 91 percent of existing US coal-fired capacity had operating costs that were higher than the cost of new solar or wind capacity. Similarly, the fluctuating cost of natural gas, as well as the need for enhanced energy security, have also demonstrated the need to transition.
As the solutions become more viable, state, provincial, and federal governments have all introduced new policies. Twenty-three US states have plans to decarbonize their power sectors by at least 80 percent, while Hawaii plans to generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2045. And as prices fall, many utilities have introduced plans of their own that are even more ambitious than the regulations.
Meeting Growing Demand and Expanding Capacity
Given the changing market and regulatory conditions, it’s no surprise that renewable installations have broken records in recent years. Wind and solar accounted for 75 percent of new installed capacity globally in 2021, with solar in particular making up 60 percent of the total increase of renewable capacity in 2022.
While generation is one critical part of the decarbonization puzzle, utilities must modernize, expand, and invest in other parts of the grid. And as demand rises, decarbonization must be achieved while increasing overall generation capacity. One analysis showed that Canada would have to triple its power generation capacity by 2050, while also building over 23,000 km of high-voltage transmission lines, just to meet rising demand.
Energy storage will become more prevalent as prices fall. Lithium-ion storage costs in 2019 were between $320 and $410 per installed kilowatt hour, making batteries far too expensive in most scenarios. But these costs are expected to fall by 70 percent by 2030, alleviating many of the reliability concerns and broadening the opportunities for renewables to be deployed and installed.
Renewables will also change the way that grids operate. Instead of power flowing in one direction from a few centralized generation facilities, renewables allow individuals, households, and businesses to generate power of their own, and, in some cases, sell any excess back to the grid. A 2022 study found that 86 percent of consumers are interested in generating their own electricity. This distributed approach means power flows in reverse, requiring local distribution systems to be upgraded and modernized to absorb the load and adapt to the new conditions.
Enhancing Maintenance With Thermal and Visual Monitoring
As electricity infrastructure evolves and expands, utilities need a new approach to maintaining and repairing critical assets.
Instead of expensive truck rolls and frequent physical inspections, utilities can deploy thermal and visual sensors that monitor high-value assets and automatically alert teams to potential issues. By reducing the amount of time technicians spend on inspections, utilities can allocate these resources more effectively, reduce overall maintenance costs, and enhance the overall reliability of the grid.
Decarbonization and the Future of Electricity
The electrical grid represents one of the largest and most important opportunities to reduce overall emissions and transition toward a more sustainable future. The increasing performance and competitiveness of renewable energy sources, as well as government policies and emissions targets, set the stage for wind and solar deployments to continue to grow.
As grid infrastructure ranging from transmission lines to substations is built and expanded, utilities must ensure they keep these assets in good condition. With the help of utility-grade thermal and visual monitoring solutions, utilities can invest in new capabilities and deliver reliable, affordable, and sustainable power to customers.