The Clean Energy Balancing Act

Energy is the lifeblood of our economy. It powers our phones, homes, offices, and transportation. As our energy consumption has evolved, so too has our electricity system to adapt to the demands of a changing world. Today, renewable energy from solar and wind dominates new electricity generation. Utilities are grappling with rising demand from electric vehicles, factories, and the data centers that support economic growth, entertainment, and communication. Simultaneously, extreme weather events are placing additional stresses on the grid. Achieving a successful clean energy transition requires a careful balancing act between pace and prudence for those involved in building, supplying, and operating today’s intricate and modern electricity system.

Let’s look first at what is happening on the electric grid. The electric sector is decarbonizing rapidly, reducing its emissions by almost 40% in less than two decades. As solar and wind deployment accelerate, and some aging carbon-emitting plants are shuttered, the electricity supply will need to remain reliable. While speed is essential, prudency suggests keeping existing plants for the occasions when they are needed and accelerating the development of new technologies to balance the future system.

What additional sources may be needed? Conventional nuclear energy is one low-emission option, but many of tomorrow’s potential, low-carbon, energy resources—including carbon capture and storage, advanced nuclear, long-duration energy storage, and hydrogen—are still in the early stages of demonstration and deployment. Expanded global collaboration is needed to learn the lessons from early demonstrations around the world and rapidly advance these technologies to widespread use.

The electricity system stands at the center of progress on economy-wide decarbonization. Electrification and the production of clean fuels such as hydrogen from electricity can play critical roles in affordably reducing emissions from transport, buildings, and industry. Here, there needs to be a step-change in progress, as emissions from each of these sectors have remained essentially constant over the last two decades.

For perspective, electricity has grown to comprise about 20% of the final energy (the energy consumed at the point of end use) over the 120 years since its first demonstration at the 1893 World’s Fair. That share will likely have to double or triple over the next 25 years to achieve a net-zero economy, with electricity increasingly powering transportation, heat, and industrial processes, and reaching 40% to 60% of the final energy across the economy.

This electricity growth means a bigger grid and we are seeing the first glimpses of that change today. U.S. electricity demand, which grew 10% over the past 20 years, is projected to realize the same growth over the next five years in some regions as data centers proliferate, domestic manufacturing grows, and consumers and commercial fleets increasingly choose electric vehicles. Globally, it’s a similar story. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported, global electricity demand is expected to grow at a faster rate over the next three years as the clean energy transition accelerates and society’s dependency on electricity increases.

While demand for electricity grows, our nation’s infrastructure is under increasing stress from extreme weather events. One-hundred-year extremes are now occurring every year. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warns of potential winter, summer, and long-term issues. For 2024, they warn that most of the U.S. faces elevated or high-reliability risk, with only parts of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast at normal risk.

Prudence suggests both near-term and longer-term strategies to help meet demand growth and make the grid more resilient. In the near term, partnering with customers to electrify delivery fleets, support data centers, and meet household needs will require expanded communication at local and regional levels to make these opportunities accessible to all. Strategies that leverage existing assets can also provide near-term wins.

Grid-enhancing technologies can move more power through existing transmission wires and corridors. Myriad approaches, including virtual power plant contracts, can leverage inherent flexibility in customer- and community-sited resources (solar, batteries, appliances) to reduce cost, and increase both reliability and grid resilience. Simultaneously, we must collectively work to steadily modernize and expand the grid, updating regulatory models to support investment in new economically attractive technological possibilities while continually improving licensing and permitting processes.

The energy sector has many opportunities to make rapid progress that will benefit customers and broader society. But there are dangers in moving too fast. Balancing prudence and pace is imperative to ensure society has a reliable, affordable, and equitable clean energy transformation.

Arshad Mansoor is president and CEO of EPRI.

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