Guest Commentary: Electric grid issues requires rethinking resiliency

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Tucker Perkins is the president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council.

Delawareans shouldn’t have to worry about blackouts, and yet, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. has warned of potential energy shortfalls this summer. Above-normal temperatures are already stressing the electric grid, and summer has just begun heating up.

On top of that, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced expectations for an above-normal hurricane season. The increased frequency with which severe weather threatens reminds us of the effects of carbon-induced climate change, just how vulnerable our electric grid is and how important it is to embrace the idea of resiliency.

In 2000, fewer than two dozen major disruptions in the U.S. caused extended blackouts. In 2020, the number was above 180, and in 2021, the economic toll of extreme weather events was roughly $329 billion globally. The dramatic increase in grid failures is happening just as electricity demand is growing rapidly, due to overly ambitious “electrify-everything” policies and battery electric-vehicle sales. Reinforcing the electric grid should be a national priority. Even when trillions of dollars and dozens of years are spent to do this, however, power lines are always going to be vulnerable to severe weather.

Resiliency requires more than electrification. Policymakers need to think beyond the lines overhead and the pipes underground to embrace a third dimension of the grid: on-demand liquid fuels. Propane, for example, is abundant, and despite supply chain shocks, has been relatively price-stable compared with gasoline and diesel. Even better in the context of climate change, conventional propane and renewable propane made from plant stalks have naturally low carbon intensities and, when blended for specialized uses, are zero-carbon, methane-free energies that can be used for heating and cooking during blackouts.

Advocates who believe clean liquid fuels should not play a role in our national energy grid have tunnel vision. The dogma that electricity is the only way to improve resilience and reduce carbon emissions misses the fact that electrification doesn’t eliminate carbon emissions — it simply concentrates them upstream in fossil-fueled power plants often located near vulnerable communities.

As important is the fact that electricity is among the least efficient way to convey energy. More than 60% of energy used to make electricity, for example, is lost at the power plant, and pushing electrons through hundreds of miles of copper wire results in energy loss, as well. The opposite is true for on-site stored energy like propane, where virtually zero energy loss occurs.

Because of this, progressive-energy thinkers are turning to microgrids to improve resiliency, efficiency and accelerate decarbonization. Distributed generation powered by solar and wind and paired with conventional or renewable propane for on-demand power can keep the lights on without blackouts and with minimal energy-transfer loss.

We have seen plenty of mayhem over the past several years and should not be surprised when severe weather brings more. It may be a surprise, however, to know that we have an array of smart energy solutions that can work in concert today to increase resiliency and simultaneously decrease carbon emissions.