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Group calls for $50 billion in high-tech grid upgrades as green energy load increases

Gil Quiniones, CEO of New York Power Authority,

Gil Quiniones, CEO of New York Power Authority, and board chairman of GridWise Alliance, said the group's recommendations are focused on technology upgrades. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Fortifying the power grid for the influx of green-energy sources will require modernizing the nation's electricity system, an alliance of energy utilities and companies said in urging the federal government to set aside at least $50 billion in stimulus funds for the technology upgrades.

The group, called the GridWise Alliance, last month formed a special council to recommend solutions to help modernize the nation’s grid. One recommendation, protecting the grid from cyberattacks, was highlighted after the ransomware attack last week on Colonial Pipeline, halting fuel shipments across the East Coast. GridWise is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advisory body on grid modernization that does not lobby.

Focus on tech upgrades

Gil Quiniones, chief executive of the New York Power Authority, who also is board chairman of GridWise Alliance, said the group’s recommendations are focused on technology upgrades, not the need for new or upgraded power lines, because so much of the nation’s electric systems aren’t fully prepared for the rush of green power.

"What we’re saying is you just can’t increase the size of the transmission and build more charging stations and battery storage and say all of that is going to work if you don’t fix the existing transmission system, upgrade cybersecurity and [electric system] controls," he said in an interview Tuesday. "No one is talking about the existing grid. It needs to be modernized. That’s our focus."

Modernizing 'existing grid'

The effort, said Karen Wayland, CEO of GridWise Alliance, is to "modernize the existing grid" with "smart-grid" upgrades, among other things, to "make sure the existing grid can handle all the renewables," while accommodating specific challenges facing utilities, such as managing power to new fleets of electric vehicle charging stations and smart buildings.

"It’s really about how you integrate the wind energy into the current system and what the grid needs to look like," she said.

Beefing up cybersecurity

Utilities already have among the toughest federal standards for cybersecurity because the power infrastructure of the country, like the financial infrastructure, is so vital to national security, Quiniones said. But as the grid becomes more decentralized, with greater points of access for hackers as power sources such as wind and solar each with their own internet address, proliferate, so does the need for greater security to guard them, Wayland said.

In addition to beefed up cybersecurity, including the need to develop and train a new wave of tech-smart security employees, the group is calling for federal spending for modernized hardware and software, modernized controls, sensors, and other systems to beef up grid flexibility for green energy.

The group is also calling for enhanced digital communication networks, calling them "essential for a modern grid," and for technology enhancements in preparation for extreme weather, wildfires and other emergencies.

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