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Resilience in a Net Zero World

By Don McPhail on

Solar and wind energy

Originally published on the SEPA blog

March 5th, which feels like a lifetime ago, I was invited to participate on a panel at BizWest’s Net Zero Cities Conference to explore how utilities and businesses can address increasing concerns around resiliency, while reaping the benefits of an accelerated transition to a clean energy system. For over ten years, my work has provided me with the opportunity to view this transition from five perspectives – utilities, researchers, vendors, markets, and customers. As industry professionals, our perspective is often too narrowly constrained, failing to consider the energy system as a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link.

“Net zero” refers to achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions removed from the atmosphere. Achieving a resilient system exclusively via carbon-free sources isn’t possible in all circumstances (e.g. diesel or gas backup generation may be required due to cost, space, performance) however this production of carbon is offset by removing carbon from other parallel industries – such as converting transportation to electric.

Resiliency in the energy system
Four angles to view resilience through the in the energy system

Ensuring an efficient and fair energy transition requires viewing resilience from multiple angles (see figure below). Note: while reliability is concerned with addressing outage duration and frequency, resiliency is more expansive and encompasses consequences to the electricity system and other critical infrastructure from increasingly likely, high-impact external events.

Resilient energy supply

Establishing a resilient supply mix begins at the top of the energy supply value chain. For instance, for an individual generator, ensuring that the design, planning, operation and maintenance of a plant consider the impact and mitigation of, and response to adverse events. This is particularly important for fuel supply chains. The supply mix also requires the diversity and flexibility to account for that “one-in-ten-year” event. Key strategies to achieve resilience include:

For example, Consumers Energy in Michigan expects demand side resources to account for 20% of their supply “fuel source” mix by 2030 as part of their plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Energy markets enabling resiliency

In North America, energy supply resources exist within a dynamic energy market which is overseen and regulated by multiple government agencies and competing businesses. This market exists to drive optimal outcomes for end users — both in steady-state conditions, and during low-probability, high-impact events. As our energy markets undergo radical transformation, policies and regulations that have served the sector well are sometimes providing misaligned incentives or artificial barriers. As Forbes reported recently, a need exists for mechanisms to encourage greater grid flexibility, “costs will rise and policy targets will suffer without integration strategies such as coordinated wholesale electricity markets.”

As we move to an energy system that is increasingly digitized, decentralized, decarbonized, and democratized, regulatory processes and practices need to evolve to meet increasing expectations of customers while continuing to provide all with clean, affordable, safe, and reliable electric service. Energy markets must appropriately reward grid solutions and DERs that efficiently ensure flexibility and resiliency.

Resilient electricity network

Despite common perception, achieving network resiliency through duplication is not the only strategy available. Increasing cost pressures have driven greater adoption of alternatives, including:

    • Capital projects to establish redundancy (i.e. N-1 contingency), geospatial diversification, and/or risk reduction (e.g. undergrounding networks).
    • Operational preparedness with strategic spares to replace failed assets, integrated response units (e.g. mobile substations) and specific contingency plans for high impact, low probability events. This may include utility microgrids serving a utility operation center to ensure data centers are kept running, and that personnel can effectively restore the grid.
    • Information technology and operational technology investments – commonly referred to as smart grid initiatives – which support impact containment (e.g. Fault Location, Isolation and Restoration systems) and/or situational awareness to speed up recovery (e.g. LiDAR impact assessment).

Similar to resiliency in electricity markets, load management or leveraging flexibility of demand-side assets is another key component, especially as industry acceptance of non-wire alternative solutions gains momentum. Ultimately, the objective is not to achieve an infinitely resilient network, but rather mitigate risks to an acceptable level, and then have the operational capabilities to efficiently respond after an event.

Resilient customers and communities

The resilience of individual end use customers and their community is paramount. This includes a customer’s (i.e. homeowner, small business owner or large commercial operation) ability to “ride-through” an event by avoiding power interruption and outages to maintain critical operations and economic production. It also includes a community’s ability to address the broader social impacts caused by a high-impact event, such as public safety, communications, water treatment and health care.
Technology can play (and is increasingly playing) a crucial role in the solution to these challenges. Examples include building out microgrid capabilities for campuses or critical services (e.g. hospitals), water supply, local government facilities as well as modular solar-plus-storage back-up solutions for homes.

However, this is only one side of the coin. As communities such as Ann Arbor, Michigan have highlighted with their A2Zero plan, holistic net zero community resilience requires consideration of fuel substitution in transport and appliances, increasing building efficiency, changing waste management, and enhancing the resilience of people and places. Ultimately, this expansive lens to address resiliency issues requires stakeholder engagement specific to each community.

While we often focus narrowly on the role of technology in creating a resilient energy system, it’s important to consider the larger ecosystem. Resilience via technology alone can not ensure that a net zero energy system addresses all the accompanying socioeconomic factors.

A (supply) chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This sentiment is reinforced by our current experience responding to COVID-19. In the future of our energy system, only those who take a holistic approach will achieve optimal resiliency.

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