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Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Grid Resilience and The Future of the Grid in North Carolina

North Carolina’s goal for a net-zero emission grid by 2050 presents a variety of challenges and opportunities for utilities and customers across the state. We spoke with Professor Jordan Kern about the pressures, challenges, and predictions for the NC grid in the future.

Professor Kern leads a research team at NC State University focused on uncertainty modeling with coupled human and natural systems. Kern is a triple UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, earning his B.S. in Environmental Sciences and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences and Engineering.

Jordan Kern

“Generally, the future looks like we’re going to be consuming way more electricity. Utilities like that, but it also presents a challenge for them.”

Jordan Kern

What are the current pressures on the electric grid?

  • Policy: In NC, the legislature has required the major electric serving utility in the state, Duke Energy, to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050. This would allow the utility to still emit some GHG emissions, but they would have to offset any emissions they do emit. There are some technologies we have that would do that, but these are quite a bit different from what utilities have been using for decades.
  • Intermittent Energy Sources and Extreme Weather: Simultaneously with the goal of decarbonizing, the other big pressure is relying more on sources of electricity that we can’t control as well. That includes integrating solar and wind, but at the same time, utilities are dealing with increased frequency and severity of different forms of extreme weather.
  • Grid Security: That could mean physical security, where someone may try to attack part of the grid, which happened last year in North Carolina, but I think the larger and more plausible threat for electric utilities is cybersecurity. Hackers could directly try to compromise the functionality of the grid, or they could do the ransomware where they could extort the electric utilities financially in exchange for data.

What are some policy implications of your research as it relates to the grid in NC?

I think there’s a recognition among entities that are in control of the grid that policy itself can be a challenge. The state or federal government may push certain policies that become laws that utilities follow before we find out what the policy is going to do. That is outside the control and jurisdiction of electric utilities, so utilities are just having to respond to that.

Most of the research we end up doing is not necessarily to inform policy, but to inform utilities. When utilities evaluate the best combination of stuff to build, sometimes they don’t adequately stress test those plans. A lot of what we do is try to understand if their plans are going to be robust in the face of increasing uncertainty about what the weather is going to look like. Almost all the time, we find what they’re saying they have to build is probably not enough.

How does your research benefit the citizens of North Carolina?

When we study the power grid, we tend to draw the box a little bigger than just NC. A lot of what we do is try to figure out, “If it’s really cold in the east, is NC going to be able to buy electricity from its neighbors?”. That’s kind of what happened during Winter Storm Elliott, where it was really cold here and there was some problems with Duke Energy’s natural gas plants. They tried to buy electricity from their neighbors, and all the neighbors said no because they were trying to meet demand in their own footprints. Part of what we do is evaluate how the NC grid would be able to function as part of a much larger grid during those types of events.

A small part of what we do is just focused on NC, on the viability of different pathways to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 considering uncertainty in weather and potential changes in the future climate. We’ve also done some work on specific natural hazards, like flooding during hurricanes, and how flooding impacts the NC grid in the eastern part of the state.

What are the priorities going forward with your research?

We’re doing more physical security stuff, trying to understand how, as the grid changes because of our interest in decarbonizing, the physical vulnerability of the grid to terrorism and stuff like that is going to change as well. Right now, almost all of our electricity is being generated at a few very well-guarded powerplants, and what we’re probably going to switch to in the future is more of these solar farms that are distributed across the state that are probably easier to attack but less consequential if you attack any one of them.

We’re also doing work related to supply chains of critical components for the electrical power grid, especially transformers. As you need to add more wind and solar, you need transformers which have very limited domestic manufacturing capability for making those and 18-36 month wait times to receive these. So, we’re trying to figure out why we don’t have as much domestic manufacturing and how the government can incentivize manufacturers here in the US.

What do you see as the future for the grid in NC?

I think it’s probably a foregone conclusion that it will largely decarbonize by 2050, and that’s because of the legislation requiring Duke to do that. I think part of the reason they passed the law with the support of Duke Energy is that Duke is going to get to own a lot of that infrastructure, so Duke shareholders make money as a function of the amount of stuff Duke builds. It was an important lesson, that if you let utilities make money through decarbonization, they will go for it.

Generally, the future looks like we’re going to be consuming way more electricity. Utilities like that, but it also presents a challenge for them. The goal is 100% reliability, so that’s challenging if you’re also increasing reliance on things you can’t control like wind and solar, and you also throw climate change in the mix.