By T.R. Witcher

The U.S. is in the middle of an energy modernization boom. The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in 2021, earmarked $73 billion for improving the power grid. The country not only must replace its aging grid infrastructure but build significantly more capacity – all while trying to push the grid toward renewable energy.

“Our grid is at a make-or-break moment,” Willie L. Phillips, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told reporters during a May 13 news conference, which announced a new FERC order that transmission operators conduct long-term planning over a 20-year timeline to anticipate future needs. “(The grid) is being tested every single day in ways that we’ve never seen before. We’re not talking about regular demand. We’re talking about dramatic increases of demand on our system.”

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More and more energy projects are making their way through planning and regulatory review across the country, seeking connection to the grid, a process known as “interconnection queues.” The amount of new electric capacity is growing dramatically, with nearly 2,600 gigawatts of total generation and storage capacity trying to connect, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“We’ve had mostly flat load growth in recent decades,” says Patricia Taylor, director of policy and research for the American Public Power Association, which represents not-for-profit power utilities across the country. “But now with electrification of transportation, heating, other users, AI, data centers, this is all growth that can benefit the utility. This can help decarbonize the energy sector.”

a woman wearing a hardhat stands in front of a red and black wellhead
A solution mining wellhead at the ACES I project in Utah, which is creating two salt caverns to store hydrogen. (Image courtesy of WSP)

This demand for energy and the rush to provide it is creating bottlenecks and opportunities. One of the challenges is the availability and price of transformers, which change the voltage of electrical energy as it moves through the grid. “If there were to be a major hurricane or some weather event, if lines or poles go down, we’re going to need transformers to build up the existing infrastructure,” says Paul Zummo, director of research and development at APPA. “So it’s a concern both for the replacement for what exists and then as future build-out.”

But transformers are in short supply due to supply constraints, as most transformers are manufactured in other countries. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, near Denver, estimates transformer capacity “may need to increase 160%-260% by 2050 compared to 2021 levels” in order to meet growing energy demand – driven by aging infrastructure and electrification. Similarly, the Department of Energy reports that the lead time for procuring transformers has increased from an average of 3-6 months in 2019 to 12-30 months last year.

To address this, in April, the DOE changed its efficiency standards, so that only 25% of new transformers needed to use energy-efficient amorphous steel cores; the rest can continue to use grain-oriented electrical steel cores, a material readily available in the U.S. Further, the timetable for implementation has been pushed back from three years to five.

Another challenge: There’s a need for more trained engineering talent to manage the bottleneck, given the high volume of work in the industry. As energy and transmission projects are being developed, they go from engineers and consultants to public service commissions and regulatory agencies. Each of those must have people who review the various studies and impacts. “We’re all vying for those same resources,” says Mike Case, P.E., LEED AP, business line executive, power and energy, and senior vice president for engineering firm WSP. “So it’s really a talent issue.”

Flexible demand

Bryce Yonker, executive director of Grid Forward, a nonprofit organization that advocates for grid modernization, says the industry is getting more serious about leveraging resources on the demand side. Scaling demand flexibility is key. That could be asking industrial customers to run energy-intensive manufacturing processes during off-peak hours or asking residents to charge their electric vehicles off peak.

“So to say, punitively, this is the highest part of demand now, often that’s in the late afternoon, and we’re going to charge you more to use energy in those times,” Yonker says. “And on the flip side of that, you might have a region that’s got some wind blowing in the evening, and typically demand drops off; we’ll charge you lower if you want to run your washing machine or whatever it is.”

A new generation of sensors should help public and private utilities better balance supply and demand. “There’s a whole array of information-gathering capabilities so that we can have better awareness on what’s going on in the grid,” Yonker says. “We can put advanced sensors, monitors, and advanced controls really at any part of the system or at a home.” He adds that there’s a growing space for analytical engines, including many produced by a new generation of startups, “that can help … us optimize how we run the grid,” ensuring that developers “right-size” future infrastructure.

Much of that infrastructure will be renewable. In total, over 1,480 gigawatts of zero-carbon generating capacity is currently seeking transmission access, according to the Berkeley lab. At more than 1,000 gigawatts, solar power represents the largest share of generation capacity waiting to connect. Solar and battery storage are by far the fastest-growing resources in the queues – more than 80% last year.

“You can generate more electricity, but how are you going to get it to where it’s needed?” says Eric Oliver, past president of the Association of Energy Engineers. “That’s leading to a decentralization of the electric grid where there’s more electricity being requested to be generated near to the line. In the future, that’s going to be mostly renewable distributed generation. It has to be.”

Solar and storage, he adds, is the future. “Solar plus storage, they have to be hand in hand,” he says. “That’s going to get you your reliability, so you get your generation at night.”

In Delta, Utah, the Advanced Clean Energy Storage project, ACES I, offers a window into what large-scale storage could look like. WSP is solution mining two salt caverns to house the equivalent of 300 gigawatt hours of potential energy – a crucial test case for industrial hydrogen storage.

“Once you’ve got an asset like this, then you’ve just got a tremendous asset for the next 50 years,” says Scyller Borglum, Ph.D., vice president of underground storage, energy at WSP. “You take care of it, you’ll have it for a very long time. And again, that’s not unique to hydrogen. It’s worth the investment.”

Keeping the public in the loop

According to a 2024 study released earlier this year by WSP, 79% of Americans are concerned about the aging infrastructure of the energy grid, and 61% say they would be willing to pay slightly more for electricity if it meant building a more reliable electric grid – although their top concern (81%) is affordability. Further, 78% believe renewable energy, over the long run, will benefit the U.S. economy.

Case says it’s up to developers, contractors, and engineering consultants to help the public understand the long-term benefits of energy infrastructure projects, even as they bring short-term disruptions to their daily lives.

“We need to do a better job of educating the public when it comes to all of these benefits that (these projects) provide,” he says. “The impetus is on us as an industry to learn from these results to ultimately go back and help the public really appreciate in deeper detail the energy transition as a whole and what that means to them personally. I do think there is a willingness to support it.”

“Federal funding is keeping everyone absolutely so busy right now,” says Yonkers, who calls the current climate a once-in-a-generation opportunity. “A lot of those dollars haven’t been committed yet, but everyone is sharpening their pencils on what to put in for.”

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.