How Climate Change and Overgrown Vegetation are Killing the Power Grid

Modernizing the U.S. power grid has been a long time coming. Initiatives are being taken to identify key issues and create an efficient power grid that is resistant to climate change, can support today’s increased energy demand, and shift to renewable energy.

In January 2022, the Biden administration announced the “Building a Better Grid Initiative,” which is set to provide $2.3 billion over the next five years to reinforce and modernize the power grid. In July 2022, one of the phases of this program, “Preventing Outages and Enhancing the Resilience of the Electrical Grid,” was launched to identify the main causes behind power outages, and ways to make the grid more resilient against fires, weather, and natural disasters.

How the Power Grid Works

When we flip a light switch or turn on the TV, it seems like power instantaneously appears in our homes, but there is a lengthy process that goes into creating that energy and getting it to where it needs to go.

First, electricity must be generated at a power plant. The U.S. power grid contains over 11,000 power plants that generate 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

Next, electricity travels through the grid to centers of high demand. To do this, electricity goes from a power plant to substations, where transformers convert it to high voltage for transmission. Transmission lines then take this high voltage electricity long distances, often across state lines.

Finally, electricity is distributed from demand centers to individual consumers. Transformers must convert the electricity back to a lower voltage, and then it is sent through distribution poles, which is delivered to homes, businesses, factories, and now often ends up in electric vehicles.

To avoid damaging the grid infrastructure and potentially causing blackouts, the electricity being sent through the grid must always sufficiently match the demand. This is not always simple because there are many obstacles on the way that can sometimes prevent power from reaching its destination. As the issues caused by climate change become more and more apparent, the power grid is being affected as well. This is mostly seen in overgrown vegetation that damages power lines and causes power outages. But there are solutions.

How Vegetation and Climate Change are Affecting the Power Grid

A study conducted by the College of Nature Resources (CNUC) found that 23% of U.S. energy outages have been related to overgrown vegetation. According to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, the largest cause of power outages comes from trees that grow or fall into power lines. The cost of these outages can add up to millions of dollars per hour, and it is estimated that power outages cost the U.S. economy about $150 million annually.

Identifying vegetation that could impact the power grid is a crucial issue that must be addressed to maintain continuity and security of our energy supply. The issue has become increasingly complicated due to a large number of natural disasters and extreme weather events, and how they impact vegetation. The Utilities industry currently spends about $7 billion annually on vegetation management, but like most industries, the solution lies in using smart technology to digitalize the process.

What Can We Do About Overgrown Vegetation?

Currently, most of the industry collects their data visually and manually analyzes it, which is both labor-intensive and time-consuming. This process can be made faster and more efficient by utilizing digital tools like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Some new technologies being used can create a virtual replica of the power grid and the vegetation and environment surrounding it by getting data from laser scanners, photography, videos, etc. These allow for faster inspection of surrounding vegetation and potential threats they may pose.

3D renderings enable the “navigation” of the grid, substations, and transformers. Combining this with big data analysis and artificial intelligence allows for the processing of all data readings and images, classification of data, measurement between vegetation and the power grid, the terrain below, and recognition of assets and detection of threats.

Digital innovations offer an overview of the conditions of the power grid that allow us to make data-driven decisions rapidly and accurately. With this technology, we can properly identify potential threats to the grid and respond accordingly with inspections and vegetation management interventions. This will continue to be a crucial aspect of keeping the power grid consistently running efficiently.

Careers in Grid Infrastructure

As efforts expand to make fixing the grid a reality after over a decade of discussion and progress, we are beginning to see positive impact on the nation in several ways. The initiatives currently underway will be a massive long-term benefit for the nation and are currently leading to lots of well-paying jobs in the energy and power grid industry.

At Progressive, we pride ourselves on connecting the best talent with great companies in important industries. As the shortcomings of the current power grid structure are brought to attention, we are proud to play a part in staffing positions taking part in the efforts to modernize the grid.

Does your company deal with grid infrastructure? Progressive has project teams across the United States with the expertise you need. Contact us to learn more about our services. 

Are you looking for a new role in grid infrastructure? Progressive places skilled people with innovative clients across the country for top jobs. Contact us to learn more about grid infrastructure opportunities.

Image showing professionals in the clean energy workforce on the job.

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