A well-designed electric grid is key to enabling cost-effective delivery of clean energy to homes and businesses. Today, our aging grid is challenged by increasingly severe extreme weather fueled by warmer climates. It has been built piecemeal and is not able to fully connect remote, low-cost and non-emitting wind and solar generation with customers, particularly as transportation, buildings and industry electrify. Better planning can help optimize the grid to serve these purposes, improve its efficiency and mitigate future disasters like the ones that resulted from the Texas Freeze, wildfires in California and Winter Storm Elliott in the Southeast U.S., for example.

Low-cost, emissions-free wind and solar power is available if we can tap into it and improve the “flexibility” of the grid to accommodate these resources that vary with the weather. Increasingly electrified consumption, through things like electric vehicles and water heaters, can help the grid be more resilient (rather than put more strain on it), if they use energy when it is the cheapest and cleanest.

To adapt to a warming world and minimize contributing to the problem, the way the grid is built and used needs to be orchestrated with new resources and consumption patterns. This includes improving how transmission wires are planned and sited, as well as ensuring these electricity highways are made available to newer resources. Four categories of WRI’s efforts address these challenges:

1) Electricity Market Improvement and Expansion

The efficiency and capabilities of the electricity grid are only as good as the rules we have on its use. As we enhance and expand our grid, utilities can better share resources—which can boost the resilience of the power system against extreme weather, bring down costs and enable cost-effective integration of wind and solar generation.

How resources are shared can be contracted bilaterally or exchanged in open, transparent markets. The contracts could be between two utilities, or a market can cover multiple states. Generally, expanding markets to cover a wider geographic footprint and include diverse resources help make the grid more resilient, flexible, clean and affordable. Transparent markets that are open to all are important to encouraging independent renewable developers and demand-side resources.

WRI has undertaken multiple projects to encourage progress on designing long-term markets that drive resource investments. Learn more about our work on electricity market design here.

2) Local Government Engagement in Electricity Markets

Regional markets and their associated planning processes are critical to local governments, which are increasingly setting goals around clean energy adoption and emissions reductions. Yet, local governments do not typically have sufficient bandwidth or information to engage in RTO/ISO stakeholder processes.

To address these constraints, WRI supports groups of local governments working collaboratively to engage Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs)/ Independent System Operators (ISOs) and the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). WRI serves as the Coalition Organizer for the PJM Cities and Communities Coalition (PJMCCC), which is a group of local governments dedicated to pursuing solutions to climate change, reducing carbon emissions and removing barriers to decarbonization in PJM. WRI is also supporting the development of a MISO Cities and Communities Coalition (MISOCCC) in coordination with the Great Plains Institute, as well as providing technical assistance to local governments engaging within ERCOT.

Additionally, WRI develops educational resources to help local governments better understand RTOs/ISOs and to determine potential engagement pathways. Through a U.S. Department of Energy project, WRI published several reports, blogs and case studies, and held multiple webinars to educate local governments and associated stakeholders about wholesale markets.


3) Enabling Electricity Customers to Scale Up Renewables and Build Grid Resilience

A “flexible” grid can help balance the variability of wind and solar power generation and enhance resilience to extreme weather. Flexibility can be provided by energy storage, transmission, customer demand and certain power plants that can quickly ramp up to respond to grid needs. Customer demand is particularly cost-effective in providing flexibility services because it can leverage existing resources. For example, electric vehicles (EVs), including electric school buses, and grid-enabled electric water heaters that can charge during off-peak hours can absorb excess renewable generation at lower electricity prices. These devices, which will proliferate as the transportation and heating sectors electrify, can multitask and reduce the need to construct new infrastructure or burn fuel solely to enhance grid resilience or bring renewables online. The challenge is to provide customers with information, incentives and the ability to respond to grid needs.

To help remove barriers to customers in providing flexible grid services, WRI has written papers and hosted webinars to help decision makers at the local and national levels better understand the opportunities related to distributed energy resources (DERs)—such as solar panels, batteries, EVs, and grid-enabled HVAC systems—and how to plan for them accordingly. WRI also supports school districts on using electric school buses to provide electricity back to the grid and is exploring their use in resiliency hubs. Learn more from our working paper, article and webinar on how local governments procuring DERs can take advantage of a new opportunity via FERC Order No. 2222 to earn revenues by leveraging these DERs to sell grid services.

Further, providing EV drivers with the incentives and options to charge at the location and the time at which electricity is the cleanest can help enable more renewable energy generation and reduce emissions. In collaboration with the Energy Systems Integration Group, WRI wrote a blog and a forthcoming paper on how policy makers and stakeholders might factor grid needs into charging station siting and pricing.


4) Transmission Planning, Permitting and Siting

Because wind and solar energy generation are often sited far from population centers, transmission can bring renewable energy to where people need it. A transmission network that extends across broad geographies can smooth the variation in wind and solar generation as well as electricity consumption patterns, which reduces the need to use fossil generation to “back up” variable renewables or meet peak consumer demand. A large grid can also boost reliability by allowing resource sharing between regions. An efficient grid capable of realizing these benefits requires good planning on larger scales, optimization with generation and consumption as renewables and electrification scale up, and better use of advanced technologies and existing rights of way.

To encourage the optimization of transmission buildout and use, WRI has convened experts to discuss enhancing cross-border electricity trade at subnational scales and internationally. We have also presented in various forums on how we can improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the grid, ensure that local communities benefit from transmission and avoid further preferential treatment for infrastructure dedicated to fossil fuels over transmission in permitting and siting.