Renewable energy’s rise is not without growing pains. As more distributed energy generation plans are developed, the traditional electric grid is facing new challenges and opportunities. The electrical grid, commonly referred to simply as the grid, is the often-unacknowledged system that enables electricity to flow from the power generator to the end-user. It can be understood as three sub-processes: generation, transmission, and distribution. However, when discussing the grid, it is important to understand that it is not a single entity, but a collection of grids located regionally throughout the United States, each managed by a regional transmission organization, or RTO. These organizations coordinate the transmission of wholesale electricity from the generator to end-use, as well as creating a market in which the utility can be bought and sold. The RTO that manages the majority of the northeast is called the PJM Interconnection. Traditionally, electricity is generated at large power plants, typically natural gas or coal-fired, which is then fed into the large electrical transmission lines to reach markets, and then is brought to the end-user via distribution lines. To accommodate the transfer of electricity from large-scale power plants, the grid was designed to handle high volumes of transmission. As energy and climate policy has evolved over time, so has electric generation through renewable power. More and more electricity is being generated through solar power from more and smaller generation systems, also known as distributed energy. This trend is poised to continue, as the Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the majority of renewable electricity capacity additions from now until 2050 will come from solar power. This new reality is putting stress on the existing grid system, disrupting RTOs ability to approve and connect additional solar projects to the grid. In response to an overwhelming number of solar-related projects, PJM is endorsing the idea of pausing the review of new energy projects for the next two years. In a press release, Ken Seiler, vice president of planning at PJM, noted that a hiatus on reviews will “help [PJM] long term to prepare for the grid of the future.” As it stands now, there are more than 1,200 projects waiting for review and eventual approval with the majority of them being solar-power projects. The proposed pause comes at a difficult time, as both state and federal policies are promoting and subsidizing renewable energy projects in efforts to achieve a carbon-free energy system. PJM said in its press release that it has worked to prioritize projects already in its queue and has made significant progress in increasing its staff with continued hiring through 2023. “We are going to see a better, faster, more efficient way to integrate projects into the system and enable states to meet their renewable portfolio goals,” Seiler said.
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