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How the US electrical grid stacks up to a changing world

By the end of this decade, the demand for energy in the U.S. is expected to spike as much as 20%. This raises the question: Can the grid keep up?
Power lines
Posted at 1:40 PM, Jun 27, 2024

When the electric grid fails anywhere in the U.S., the impacts can be devastating.

With demand surging over the next decade, there are growing, urgent questions about whether the system can keep up.

Texas' power grid failure in February 2021 was a clear warning sign, not just for the Lone Star State, but for the country.

Temperatures remained near freezing for five days. As a result, 246 people died, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Now, the energy grid is vulnerable at a time when it's needed more than ever. The U.S. is experiencing extreme temperatures plus new demands like artificial intelligence, electric vehicles and an aging infrastructure — which together create a perfect storm for troubles.

Texas was unique in that its grid is isolated from the rest of the country — but in other ways it's not. The country's grid is old, sometimes failing and unprepared for increasing weather anomalies.

Across America, 80% of power outages in the last three years were due to weather, according to Climate Central. Storms are becoming more severe due to climate change.

Power systems have collapsed from hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves and deep freezes.

Not only is the infrastructure unprepared for disasters, but much of it has reached its expiration date and beyond. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, most parts of the country's energy grid were made 65 to 75 years ago — and had 50-year lifespans.

The 2018 Camp Fire in Chico, California, is another deadly example.

Strong winds knocked a live power line from a degraded, 97-year-old structure holding it in place. Hitting the tinder-dry ground, a fire sparked and grew rapidly.

It was the first time in U.S. history a company pleaded guilty to homicide. For Pacific Gas and Electric, it wasn't the last time it faced charges for negligence.

Skyrocketing needs were another part of Texas' 2021 grid failure. Not enough supply led to rolling blackouts.

For the future, not enough energy is going to be a problem without severe weather.

Texas' public utility estimates it needs to double its energy output in the next six years. More than half of that projected need comes from bitcoin mining and data centers.

In neighboring Arizona, the utility service projects will need 20% more power in the next five years.

Today, we're using more energy than ever and shifting to greener production.

A report by PJM Interconnection, which manages the grid of 14 states on the East Coast, estimates it will need to nearly double its production to meet the energy needs of 2040.

Driving the surge in the near term is the rise in industrial and manufacturing facilities, data center growth (specifically generative AI) and getting the power from where it's generated to homes and communities.

New sources of energy are being developed, but connecting to aging grids built for different technologies is expensive and takes years to come online.

Fossil fuels, like natural gas, provide the majority of energy in the U.S., but renewables now make up the majority of new energy added to the grid, according to Statista.

Federal legislation under President Joe Biden poured $2 trillion into an effort to green our grid. It's the largest de-carbonization investment in America's history.

However, many of those programs end in 2026, giving Congress the power to determine future funding.

One thing is clear: The U.S. power grid needs an update and significant investment to avoid tragedies like those in Texas and California.