5 Ways to Ensure Grids Don't Become Bottlenecks in the Energy Transition

Meeting ambitious climate targets while transitioning from fossil fuels remains a key priority for businesses, policymakers, and society in general. The good news is that the grid can play a pivotal role in helping us achieve this.

With less dependency on more harmful energy sources such as oil and coal, and increased electrification, we are now seeing the amplified integration of greener energy sources such as renewable solar and adoption of electric vehicles. However, increased electrification puts huge pressure on our grids, and it has become clear in recent years that our current grid infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the necessary changes.


Energy consumption is expected to grow threefold by 2050, making grids a potential bottleneck in the journey toward net zero. The ability to increase our grid capacity is possible, and here are five crucial things we need to start doing today to optimize our grid management for the future.

Improve DER Oversight

With the “electrification of everything,” grid management has become increasingly complex. This is due to the exponential growth of distributed energy resources (DERs), including solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps and battery storage systems. The shift from a few big power plants supplying energy in one direction (i.e., to consumers), to millions of power plants and two-way energy flows (i.e., consumers now transitioning to energy producers or “prosumers”), has significant implications for how utilities plan and manage their networks. Furthermore, due to the intermittent nature of DERs, keeping the grid stable has become even more challenging. The first step in managing this new complex landscape is to establish better visibility of all DERs on a network, in front of and behind the meter, to understand how they are behaving at any point in time.

Marcus McCarthy

Get Proactive with Distribution Grids

Traditionally, utilities managed high-voltage transmission grids more actively than lower-voltage distribution lines. However, this is changing quickly. With increased DER adoption, distribution grids offer significant opportunity to assist utilities in achieving lower-carbon objectives, reducing peak loads and improving overall resilience. If not managed proactively, embedded DERs can cause significant stress to network equipment. To ensure proper grid planning, operations and maintenance, utilities must shift their focus to understanding and managing the changing nature of distribution grids.

Harnessing Software for Scalability

Digitalization is paramount to unlocking the full potential of our grids and managing them effectively. Software, such as distributed energy resources management systems (DERMS), helps to provide increased transparency over the grid in real-time, leading to more proactive grid management, fault detection, faster response times, and improved outage management. Digitalization can also better facilitate the integration of DERs, helping to visualize and understand the entire grid, monitor critical aspects, and spot potential sources of instability.  The complexity of networks is increasing, and expert software systems are needed to guide decision makers and ensure optimal operation of the network in a blink of an eye.

Utilizing Data for Grid Planning

Software is part of the equation—but being able to utilize the data it provides is also critical. To date, many utilities have tended to underuse the data they can access. By focusing on better data utilization, utilities can gain more transparency and a deeper understanding of the grid to increase its capacity. Utilizing data for grid management can help to identify bottlenecks in the grid faster and provide solutions in real-time, preventing interruptions or outages in the power supply.  Data is an essential resource needed to train future optimization, analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities to enable smarter autonomous networks.

Coordination and Collaboration

Better grid management requires better coordination at all levels. Sharing knowledge and expertise among utilities can reduce costs and inefficiencies. If we look at Europe, for example, the region has begun to make progress, sharing data among control centers for high-voltage lines to get a better overview. However, the current setup in North America has made it difficult to share relevant information across state lines, but we have started to see improvements. A great example is the California ISO, which deployed the Western Energy Imbalance Market to efficiently manage and dispatch renewable resources. This multi-state energy exchange in the American West used software to analyze the energy requirements of the grid every five minutes and automatically determine the lowest-cost generation to meet demand at the right time across state lines.

Another area for coordination is among transmission and distribution networks. Using integrated modeling, better network and demand management in several areas—including the design and implementation of more complex and efficient protection schemes—can be achieved. This work requires more sharing of network models in standardized formats for improved collaboration.

In summary, it will take many entities working together, and a reliable and expanded grid, to successfully pursue a cleaner and more sustainable energy future. We have the technology available today to operate the existing grid more intelligently, achieving increased capacity quicker, and without having to invest in new expensive infrastructure. The software and digitalization tools we implement today, will not only increase capacity, but aid in reliability—laying the foundation for an autonomous and advanced clean grid of the future.

Marcus McCarthy is SVP of Siemens Grid Software, U.S. and Mexico.

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