Keeping the power grid up to date in today's America

By Alex Bazhinov, Founder and President of Lumin
With an aging electrical grid under pressure, homeowners in the United States are increasingly taking resiliency and cost into their own hands

The US electrical grid, as one of the great engineering feats of our time, is more than just a power generation and transmission infrastructure. The grid powers everything from the nation’s economy and national security to daily health and safety of citizens. However, with the grid’s infrastructure quickly aging, transmission lines and circuit breakers are found to be more than 25 to 30 years old. Indeed, the grid is struggling to keep up with today’s increased power demands.

Under pressure

As the planet warms, severe heat waves occur more often, increasing water evaporation, which leads to devastating droughts. All of that additional moisture in the atmosphere also makes storms more severe. Climate and weather-related disasters have increased five-fold over the past 50 years. A look back at some of the events of 2022 provides plenty of examples:

In addition to thousands living without power and not knowing when the lights will turn back on, these natural disasters are incredibly expensive. Extreme weather cost U.S. taxpayers $145 billion in 2021, and that number is expected to grow yearly.

To add insult to injury, we’re only putting more pressure on our strained grid. Extreme heatwaves and freezes drive up demand for air conditioning and heat. Also, while our transition to electric vehicles will help cut carbon emissions, it will require much more electricity. Our grid is not strong enough to reliably supply all necessary additional power, and grid operators are failing to plan accordingly.

With no end in sight, Americans face more outages and higher electricity bills. However, changing electrical infrastructure provides opportunities for homeowners to mitigate these challenges by gaining control of their energy use.

A proactive approach

Traditionally, homeowners could fully rely on the grid for affordable, resilient power from their local utility at a fairly flat, affordable rate, but that is changing. The power industry often uses the term “behind the meter” to indicate the point at which the grid ends at your home’s electric meter, which your utility uses to measure how much power you consume for billing. However, with the advent of residential solar, energy storage systems and “smart” appliances such as refrigerators or thermostats connected to the internet, the grid now extends well into the home. You are not only pulling electricity but also pushing it onto the grid. This makes you an active player and provides opportunities to understand and control your energy production and use to ensure greater power reliability and lower costs while helping to strengthen and decarbonize our nation’s grid.

Step one: Evaluate your needs and wants

Rather than going out and buying a home solar system off the bat, it’s important to first think about your needs. Are you looking for power reliability, lower energy bills or perhaps both? Are you seeking to decrease your carbon footprint? Are you in a geographic region where natural disasters or outages are common? Is electricity expensive in your city? It might be worth considering what appliances you want to keep powered and for how long should a grid outage occur.

Step two: Assess the local landscape

Next, do some research to learn more about your local utility and how it operates. For example, what are its rules for installing a grid-connected solar array or battery storage? What programs and incentives are available? Does your utility offer smart meters to understand and control your energy use? A few terms to keep in mind are:

  • Net metering: Some utilities allow you to sell your extra solar energy back to them for a credit on your meter, so you’re only charged for your “net” energy use. This can reduce your electric bill while the additional power helps utilities service other customers.
  • Time-of-Use rates: Electricity costs more when demand is high. Some utilities provide rate information for different times (time-of-use rates), allowing you to shift your energy use to periods of lower demand. This can help you save money while enabling grid operators to balance supply and demand better.
  • Demand response: In some part of the country where the grid is most constrained during peak hours, utilities and grid operators are willing to pay homeowners to reduce their energy consumption for a limited period of time. Signing up for a demand response program with your flexible energy management system or “smart” appliances may help you save money. In addition, your solar and energy storage can be aggregated into a “virtual power plant” or VPP. In this case, your battery may be called on to discharge into the grid during peak hours and you can make extra money on that.
  • Incentives/tax credits: Federal tax credits are available for homeowners who install alternative energy equipment or make other energy efficiency upgrades, including water heaters or windows. Many states offer additional incentives for even more savings to make the economics work.

Step three: Determine the right fit

Once you understand your energy wants and needs, as well as local utility regulations and programs, you can use this information to drive your decisions about the best solution for you.

For example, installing solar on your home in an area that allows net metering, employing smart meters, and abiding by time-of-use information to do your laundry when demand is lower can help manage your electricity costs.

While your grid-connected solar array will go down during outages due to electrical shock risk, adding a small battery or generator can help keep your lights on and most critical appliances running. Some smart home devices can even let you pick and choose your power priorities.

Facing reality

Increased power demands and evolving distributed energy resources are straining the grid’s reliability. However, with the growth of clean energy solutions and the plummeting costs of adoption and installation, there exists an incredible opportunity for utilities and homeowners to work together to achieve mutual benefits.

Today’s technologies are more available and affordable than ever to enable you to adjust your behaviors and achieve greater control as you monitor and manage your energy usage, reliability and cost in your own personal grid setup.

The mission to decarbonize daily energy habits and processes may be overwhelming, but the available and affordable smart home technologies are exciting. We face many challenges in this new world, but we also have the information, tools and power to improve it.

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