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We got your back: Shoring up an all-electric future

    Can the electric power sector be solely responsible for our energy future? Can it generate massive new amounts of power from all renewable sources? Can the grid, the network of transmission lines and wires safely and securely deliver that power reliably to everyone, everywhere, all of the time?

    We won’t know the final answers to those questions for decades to come. What we do know is that having proven and reliable backup power systems powered by internal combustion engines like diesel or natural gas are now more important than ever to boost our resilience and ensure continuous electrical power for businesses, communities and homes if the grid power goes out, and it does.

    Who can forget the Texas electricity crisis, when over the course of just four days in February 2021, 80 lives were lost and property damage totaled tens of billions of dollars as demand for heat exceeded the electrical supply? At that time, 61% percent of Texans relied on electric resistance heat for their homes.

    Pie chart showing sources of U.S. Electricity GenerationIn 2021 the average US electric utility customer lost power for nearly eight hours, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s more than twice as long as in 2013, the earliest year for which that data is available. In the 11 years prior to 2021, there were 986 weather-related power outages in this country, nearly twice as many as in the previous 11 years, according to government data analyzed by Climate Central, a nonprofit group of scientists, and reported in the New York Times.

    According to the EPA, rising global average temperature is associated with widespread changes in weather patterns. Scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events, such as heat waves and large storms, are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change. In a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it was noted that “Climate change is expected to affect every aspect of the electricity grid—from generation, transmission, and distribution, to demand for electricity. For example, more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may diminish hydroelectricity in some areas, and increasing wildfires may damage transmission lines.”

    Whether just a momentary blip, or an outage that lasts hours or days, the loss of electrical power impacts everything. From the simple inconvenience of resetting devices to losses in online productivity, business economic capacity, and public health and safety, when grid power goes out everyone feels it.

    Industrial power solutions providers have many options for customers to ensure their power stays on when grid power goes out, and a recent event explored the options for various power solutions including natural gas, diesel and emerging technologies like fuel cells and power storages systems. Just like solving the climate challenge, there is not a one-size fits all solution that is right for every application or need. Some will find natural gas to be a good option for those with access to natural gas supply lines. Others without that access and need for portability would likely find diesel backup generators to be a technology of choice. Diesel generators have long been the gold standard for providing backup emergency power for life safety building codes for hospitals and other facilities. Their response time (10 seconds) to full load carrying capacity, reliability, self-contained fuel supplies, and mobile solutions make them top choices.

    Microgrids are another increasingly attractive option to shore up reliable electrical supply. These units bring together prime power generation that utilizes renewables like solar and wind, along with battery storage and backup internal combustion engines to ensure that the connected business, community, or campus has continuous power, independent of the grid.

    The electric power generators, and network of grids and system operators, have major burdens to bear. The Bipartisan Policy Center has found that electricity demand will more than double over the next 30 years on the path to a net-zero future. The Biden Administration has set a goal for half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 to be zero emissions vehicles and nearly all will be electric vehicles (EVs). To meet these growing demands on the electric power sector, according to the Department of Energy, the country needs 47,300 gigawatt-miles of new power lines by 2035, which would expand the current grid by 57%. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) set aside nearly $28 billion to improve grid resilience and reliability, but the challenges in siting, permitting, and constructing are on a grand scale not previously encountered.

    The Biden Administration’s EPA is expected to announce proposed rules that will require major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power sector to meet climate change goals. 

    And it’s not just national policies at work. In California, SB100 (passed 2018) established a landmark policy requiring renewable energy and zero-carbon resources supply 100% of electric retail sales to end-use customers by 2045. The impact of this new policy has already been felt, with retail electricity rates up 28%, and the number of nonresidential backup generators in the Bay Area jumped by 34%. In Southern California, deployment of backup generators rose by 22% in only one year, according to South Coast Air Quality Management District data. The net and predictable result of California’s over reliance on intermittent resources is an increased dependence on emergency generation. Other leading voices outside of industry recognize this as well… noting that “Absent new policy directions, the role diesel generation plays in California’s energy mix will only increase.” - Cal Matters Op-Ed October 6, 2021 .

    Whether due to hurricanes (this year’s season starts June 1), summer power demand exceeding supply, or cold snaps, our traditional grid and electrical supply system is undergoing major stresses and change over the next few decades. That means that emergency backup power systems using internal combustion engines are now more important than ever for business continuity, connectivity to our digital world, and to help ensure public health and safety.