A Call for Immediate Public Health and Emergency Response Planning for Widespread Grid Failure Under Extreme Heat

Soaring energy demands and unprecedented heatwaves have placed the U.S. on the brink of a severe threat with the potential to impact millions of lives: widespread grid failure across multiple states. While the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), tasked with overseeing grid reliability under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has issued warnings about the heightened risk of grid failures, the prospect of widespread summer blackouts looms large amid the nation’s unpreparedness for such scenarios.

As a proactive measure, there needs to be a mandate for the implementation of an Executive Order or an interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) mandating the expansion of Public Health and Emergency Response Planning for Widespread Grid Failure Under Extreme Heat. This urgently needed action would help mitigate the worst impacts of future grid failures under extreme heat, safeguarding lives, the economy, and national security as the U.S. moves toward a more sustainable, stable, and reliable electric grid system.

When the lights go out, restoring power across America is a complex, intricate process requiring seamless collaboration among various agencies, levels of government, and power providers amid constraints extending beyond just the loss of electricity. In a blackout, access to critical services like telecommunications, transportation, and medical assistance is also compromised, which only intensifies and compounds the urgency for coordinated response efforts. To avert blackouts, operators frequently implement planned and unplanned rolling blackouts, a process for load shedding that eases strain on the grid. However, these actions may lack transparent protocols and criteria for safeguarding critical medical services. Equally crucial and missing are frameworks to prioritize regions for power restoration, ensuring equitable treatment for low-income and socially vulnerable communities affected by grid failure events.

Thus, given the gravity of these high-risk, increasingly probable scenarios facing the United States, it is imperative for the federal government to take a leadership role in assessing and directing planning and readiness capabilities to respond to this evolving disaster.

Challenge

Grids are facing unprecedented strain due to record-high temperatures, which reduce their energy transmission efficiency and spike demand for air conditioning during the summer. On top of this, new industries are pushing grids to their limits. The Washington Post and insights from the utility industry cite the exponential growth of artificial intelligence and data centers for cloud computing and crypto mining as drivers of a nearly twofold increase in electricity consumption over the past decade. 

Projections from NERC paint a dire picture: between 2024 and 2028, an alarming 300 million people across the United States could face power outages. This underscores the pressing need for robust emergency response and public health planning.

The impact of power loss is especially profound for vulnerable populations, including those reliant on electricity-dependent medical equipment and life-saving medications that require refrigeration. Extreme heat significantly increases public health risks by exacerbating mental health, behavioral disorders, and chronic illnesses such as heart and respiratory conditions, and increasing the likelihood of preterm births and developmental issues in infants and children. Excessive temperatures also impose burdens on older adults.

Since 2015, national power outages have surged by over 150% owing to demand and extreme weather amplified by climate change. Increasing temperatures can cause transformers to overheat and explode, sometimes sparking fires and cascading outages. Other types of severe weather events, such as lightning strikes, high winds, and flying debris, further escalate the risk of utility infrastructure damage.

In 2020, 22 extreme weather events – from cyclones to hurricanes, heat, and drought – cost the U.S. a combined $95 billion. The following year, disasters like the Texas winter storm and the Pacific Northwest heatwave vividly illustrated the severe consequences of extreme weather on grid stability. To put this into perspective, 

These events led to rolling blackouts, thousands of heat-related emergency room visits, numerous deaths, and substantial economic losses. This remains an actively ongoing paradigm, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 2023 Billion-dollar disaster report confirming 28 weather and climate disasters in a single year, surpassing the previous record of 22 in 2020, with a price tag of at least $92.9 billion.

Historical disasters, such as Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the Northeastern blackout in 2003, are stark reminders of the devastating impact of prolonged power outages. The aftermath of such events includes loss of life, disruptions to healthcare access, and extensive economic damages. 

A stark 2023 study reported that “If a multi-day blackout in Phoenix coincided with a heat wave, nearly half the population would require emergency department care for heat stroke or other heat-related illnesses.” Under such conditions, the researchers estimate that 12,800 people in Phoenix would die.

During these events, restoring power and providing mass care falls on various entities. Utility and power operators are tasked with repairing grid infrastructure, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates interagency actions through its National Response Framework and Emergency Support Functions (ESFs).

For example, ESF #6 handles mass care missions like sheltering and feeding, while ESF #8 coordinates public health efforts, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). FEMA’s Power Outage Incident Annex (POIA) enables utility operators to request support through ESF #12.While there is some testing of system responses to blackouts, few states have conducted exercises at scale, which is crucial, given the immense complexity of restarting grid infrastructure and coordinating mass care operations simultaneously.

Opportunity

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Liberty Eclipse Program exemplifies a successful public-private partnership aimed at bolstering energy sector preparedness against cyberattacks on the grid. Similarly, FEMA conducts numerous Incident Command Systems (ICS) training annually, emphasizing collaboration across governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector.

By leveraging interagency mechanisms like MOUs, FEMA, DOE, and HHS can integrate and expand exercises addressing heat-induced grid failure into existing training frameworks. Such collaborative efforts would ensure a comprehensive approach to preparedness. Additionally, funds typically earmarked for state and local agency training could cover their participation costs in these exercises, optimizing resource utilization and ensuring widespread preparedness across all government levels.

There are also several federal policy efforts currently aligned with this proposal’s objectives, demonstrating a concerted effort to address related challenges through legislation, executive branch actions, programs, and precedents. Notable legislative initiatives, such as Rep. Ruben Gallego’s proposal to amend the Stafford Act, underscore a growing recognition of the unique threats posed by extreme heat events and the need for proactive federal measures.

Simultaneously, regulatory initiatives, such as those by FERC, signal a proactive stance in enhancing energy infrastructure resilience against extreme weather events. Building on an established precedent, FERC could direct NERC to create extreme heat reliability standards for power sector operators, akin to those established for extreme cold weather in 2024 (E-1 | RD24-1-000), further ensuring the reliable operation of the Bulk Electric System (BES).A pivotal resource informing our proposal is the 2018 report by the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), which emphasizes the significance of addressing catastrophic grid failure and underscores ongoing efforts dedicated to this pressing issue. Tasked with assessing the nation’s preparedness for “catastrophic power outages beyond modern experience,” the report offers invaluable insights and recommendations, particularly relevant to the following recommendation.

Plan of Action

To enhance national resilience, save tens of thousands of lives, and prevent significant economic losses, the National Security Council (NSC) should coordinate collaboration between implicated agencies (DOE, HHS, and FEMA) on grid resilience under extreme heat conditions and work to establish an interagency MOU to fortify the nation’s resilience against extreme heat events, with a specific focus on disaster planning for grid failure. This proposal will have minimal direct impact on the federal budget as it will use existing frameworks within agencies such as FEMA, the DOE, and HHS. These agencies already allocate resources towards preparedness training and testing, as evidenced by their annual budgets. 

Recommendation 1. NSC should initiate a collaboration between DOE, HHS, and FEMA.

The NSC should direct DOE to assess grid resilience under extreme heat and coordinate and prepare for widespread grid failure events in collaboration with FEMA and HHS. This collaboration would involve multi-state, multi-jurisdictional entities, tribal governments, and utilities in scaling planning and preparedness.

Under this coordinated action, federal agencies, with input from partners in the NSC should undertake the following steps:

The DOE Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER), in collaboration with FERC and NERC, should develop comprehensive extreme heat guidelines for utilities and energy providers. These guidelines should include protocols for monitoring grid performance, implementing proactive maintenance measures, communicating concerns and emerging issues, and establishing transparent and equitable processes for load shedding during extreme heat events. Equitable and transparent load shedding is critical as energy consumption rises, driven in part by new industries like clean tech manufacturing and data centers.

FEMA should:

HHS should strengthen functions under ESF#8 to deliver public health services during extreme heat-induced grid failure events, with enhanced coordination between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

Recommendation 2. Establish an interagency MOU

An interagency MOU should streamline coordination and collaboration on extreme heat disaster planning and preparedness for grid failure. Further, these agreements should prepare agencies to facilitate cross-sector collaboration with states and local governments through the establishment of a national task force. 

This MOU should outline the following actions:

Conclusion

This proposal emphasizes planning for blackouts and response readiness when the lights go out across wide swaths of America during extreme heat. Addressing this critical gap in federal disaster response planning would secure the safety of millions of citizens and prevent billions of dollars in potential economic losses. 

An Executive Action or interagency MOU would facilitate coordinated planning and preparedness, leveraging existing frameworks and engaging stakeholders beyond traditional boundaries to effectively manage potential catastrophic, multi-state grid failures during heat waves. Specific steps to advance this initiative include ensuring no ongoing similar exercises, scheduling meetings with pertinent agency leaders, revisiting policy recommendations based on agency feedback, and drafting language to incorporate into interagency MOUs.

Using existing authorities and funding, implementing these recommendations would safeguard lives, protect the economy, and bolster national security, particularly as the U.S. moves toward a more sustainable, stable, and reliable electric grid system.

This idea of merit originated from our Extreme Heat Ideas Challenge. Scientific and technical experts across disciplines worked with FAS to develop potential solutions in various realms: infrastructure and the built environment, workforce safety and development, public health, food security and resilience, emergency planning and response, and data indices. Review ideas to combat extreme heat here.

Frequently Asked Questions
How do these recommendations align with existing policy priorities?

This proposal is fully aligned with the Biden Administration’s executive actions on climate change, specifically, Executive Orders 14008 and 13990, which have led to significant initiatives aimed at addressing climate-related challenges and promoting environmental justice. These actions resulted in the establishment of key entities such as the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as in the development of the HHS’ national Climate and Health Outlook and the CDC’s Heat and Health Tracker, and heat planning and preparedness guides. Furthermore, the launch of Heat.gov and the interagency National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS), are significant steps in providing accessible and science-based information to the public and decision-makers to support equitable heat resilience. Heat.gov serves as a centralized platform offering comprehensive resources, including NIHHIS programs, events, news articles, heat and health program funding opportunities, and information tailored to at-risk communities. This initiative underscores President Biden’s dedication to tackling the health risks associated with extreme heat and is a priority of his National Climate Task Force and its Interagency Working Group on Extreme Heat. This proposal complements these efforts and aligns closely with the administration’s broader climate and health equity agenda. By leveraging existing frameworks and collaborating across agencies, it is possible to further advance the administration’s objectives while effectively addressing the urgent challenges posed by climate change.

How much will this proposal cost?
There is little foreseeable direct impact on the federal budget. Leveraging established frameworks within agencies like FEMA, DOE, and HHS presents a pragmatic approach. These agencies already allocate resources for preparedness training and testing, as evidenced by their annual budgets.
Why should the federal government be the entity to act rather than the private sector or state/local government?
Disaster planning and public health emergency preparedness frameworks and resources are crafted and overseen by the federal government to support the needs of state, tribal, and local governments. In the event of a catastrophic grid failure spanning numerous jurisdictions, FEMA’s National Response Framework would be activated. This proposal contends that enhancing response preparedness for a widespread blackout amid extreme heat can be achieved through existing federal frameworks and enhanced interagency cooperation. Consequently, there is a critical imperative for the federal government to take the lead in evaluating planning and readiness capacities to address this evolving disaster scenario.
Who is likely to push back on this proposal?
The federal agencies outlined in this proposal already bear significant responsibilities for public safety. Therefore, some may perceive this proposal as stretching their capacities or adding further bureaucracy to an already complex response framework. However, these recommendations aim to streamline crucial planning efforts ahead of operationalizing measures in the event of a disaster. This streamlined approach promises greater efficiency in response efforts, ultimately leading to more successful outcomes in preserving lives, economies, and security.
What is the first step to getting this proposal off the ground?
The first step is to assess what level of planning and exercising has taken place or is being planned for wide-scale grid failure events under extreme heat. By understanding the current state of readiness, efforts can be tailored to address any deficiencies and enhance overall preparedness for such critical scenarios.

This policy memo was written by the Federation of American Scientists in collaboration with the Pima County Department of Health (Dr. Theresa Cullen, Dr. Julie Robinson, Kat Davis), which provided research and information support to the authors. The Pima County Department of Health seeks to advance health equity and environmental justice for the citizens of Arizona and beyond.

Building Back with a Cleaner Power Grid for America

Achieving energy decarbonization in America will require a power grid supplied by renewable energy and backed by ample energy storage. The challenge is that many types of renewable energy provide power intermittently depending on factors such as the time of day or weather conditions. To maintain grid reliability while working towards a nation powered by 100% renewable energy, the Biden-Harris Administration should accelerate adoption of distributed energy resources and expand transmission capacity to create a more unified national power grid. These efforts will increase equitable access to clean energy, accelerate investment in renewables, and create thousands of long-term, high-skilled jobs in a robust American energy sector.

Challenge and Opportunity

The U.S. power grid was built in—and designed for—a previous energy era: one in which on-demand, regionally located energy supplies (such as coal-fired power plants) are delivered to thousands of customers along one-direction transmission lines and managed by public utilities that operate as local monopolies.

But as our nation pushes to replace fossil fuels with cleaner sources of power, the energy landscape will look quite different. Many types of renewable energy provide power intermittently depending on factors such as the time of day or weather conditions. Supplies of such energy sources cannot be ramped up easily (or at all) during periods of peak demand. Meanwhile, smart-and-distributed-energy technologies—such as smart thermostats, rooftop solar, and electric vehicles—have led to an increasingly dynamic and complex power grid. 

The policy response to these rapid changes in the way we generate power has mostly constituted a patchwork of efforts at the state and regional level. Federal attention to renewables has focused largely on tax incentives and on regulation via orders from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). For instance, FERC’s recent order opening wholesale energy markets to distributed energy resources is an important step towards increasing the share of renewables in the U.S. energy sector. Incentives to increase adoption of renewables and investment in research and development (R&D) to improve performance and utility of renewables are essential as well. But to realize a quick and smooth transition to a clean-energy future, concerted action is needed to tackle the intermittency challenge that renewables pose.

Such action can proceed via two complementary pathways simultaneously. The first pathway is using technology advances like vehicle-to-grid (V2G) integration, demand response, smart thermostats, and energy storage to flexibly shift load demand. These technologies help guide certain discretionary types of energy consumption (e.g., running a load of laundry) to occur during times when renewable-energy supply is high but demand is low, and can even enable consumers to return energy to the grid (e.g., by plugging in a parked electric vehicle so that the vehicle’s battery can be used as a power source) to during periods of peak demand.

Unfortunately, innovative energy-management technologies are markedly underutilized in the U.S. power sector. Distorted market-incentive structures, inadequate control protocols governing relationships between operators and consumers, and reliability concerns have all made utilities reluctant to embrace a more dynamic grid. Moreover, grid users (i.e., residential and commercial customers) cannot currently participate in an open energy market on an equal footing with utilities. This means that our nation is not realizing the full value of services that customers can provide to a power grid.

A smarter grid-operating system would (1) make it easier for operators to integrate distributed energy resources (DER) with more conventional types of power supplies, (2) economically incentivize changes in user behavior to smooth out energy-demand curves, and (3) enable everyday Americans to invest in distributed clean-energy technologies and earn returns for providing various services to the power grid. These steps in turn would greatly facilitate large-scale integration of renewables into the U.S. power mix.

The second pathway for addressing the intermittency problem is to finally create a connected and integrated American power grid. This would enable areas with steady supplies of renewable energy—such as solar in the Southwest, wind in Texas and the Midwest, and off-shore wind in New England—to deliver power to different parts of the country as needed. Preliminary studies done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have demonstrated the economic and environmental benefits of unifying currently disconnected sections of the American power grid. Examples from California and Texas illustrate the need to and benefits of expanding national transmission capacity.

California’s power grid highlights the problems of building aggressive renewable energy portfolios without sufficient transmission. As renewable-energy capacity in California has increased, so too has curtailment—i.e., deliberate reduction in output—of that capacity (Figure 1). Roughly half of this curtailment has been due to transmission constraints. Transmission constraints have also prevented creation of approximately 72,000 potential American jobs from renewable-energy projects in the Midwest.

Figure 1

Insufficient transmission capacity coupled with increasing renewable-energy production in California is resulting in significant curtailment, or waste, of renewable energy in the state. (Source: California ISO. (2021).

In Texas, the 2021 winter storm Uri recently demonstrated an even more dire consequence of limited interconnection across our nation’s power infrastructure: the disastrous failure modes that can manifest in isolated power grids. When Uri hit, grid operators simultaneously encountered high load demand as residents turned up their heaters and inadequate energy supply as naturalgas power plants began failing in the cold weather. The rolling power failures experienced in Texas during the storm could have been mitigated if Texas had been able to import energy from other grids. Connecting the regional power grids that exist in the United States will improve grid resiliency across the nation by allowing regions to draw from each other as circumstances and local conditions demand.

Strengthening the U.S. power grid through improved use of energy-management technologies and better regional interconnections will have benefits that extend beyond grid flexibility and resilience. Grid modernization will create jobs across America in the construction, manufacturing, and energy sectors. By empowering rate-payers to produce their own energy, sell back surplus energy to the grid, and be rewarded for shifting energy-consumption patterns in response to grid conditions, grid modernization will generate economic value for consumers. By encouraging development of distributed energy resources, grid modernization will allow rural communities to replace expensive and burdensome propane shipments with continuously flowing electricity from local solar and storage installations. By transforming the U.S. power grid from a collection of regional entities into an interconnected, national resource, grid modernization will allow energy developers to tap into a national energy market instead of being limited by regional boundaries. And by creating a more unified energy sector, one in which states and communities rely on each other for power, grid modernization might even result in a more united country.

Plan of Action

The federal government plays a critical role in regulating and maintaining the nation’s grid infrastructure. As such, there is much that the Biden-Harris Administration can do—by using existing executive authority and by working with Congress on legislative actions—to strengthen the resilience of the U.S. power grid and foster integration of distributed energy resources and renewables into the U.S. power sector. Progress on these fronts will help transition the United States towards a 100% clean-energy future while creating industries and jobs centered around clean-energy resources, building up America’s advanced manufacturing base, and generating new economic opportunities for all Americans.

Actions using existing executive authority

Improve coordination between federal and state entities to reduce regulatory barriers to energy development. The federal government can support interstate grid projects (such as regional interconnections) by helping coordinate state legislatures and by reducing regulatory burdens related to such projects. In particular, FERC plays an important role in coordinating regional grid investments and planning across states (such as the Eastern seaboard’s off-shore wind grid). The Biden-Harris Administration should prioritize this function of FERC in order to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles faced by energy developers. The new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy (Climate Policy Office) can play an additional coordinating role, helping to align technical research conducted at the Department of Energy (DOE)‘s national labs with policy and regulatory work conducted through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the Department of Interior, the Department of Defense, and other relevant federal entities. Finally, the Climate Policy Office can work with state legislatures to provide state-specific recommendations (i.e., recommendations tailored to the unique natural resources and electricity market structures of each state) on how to best incentivize investment and job growth in the energy industry.

Actions involving collaboration with Congress

Scale R&D innovations in clean-energy technologies by increasing relevant DOE funding. The federal government can use its federal budget to help scale R&D innovations in clean energy and help advance those innovations towards manufacturing and production. By accelerating commercialization and mass production of clean-energy innovations, federal investment will help make clean energy more affordable for American consumers, while simultaneously fostering job growth in the American energy sector. To that end, the next White House budget proposal should include significant funding increases for DOE, in particular for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE)1, Loan Program Office (LPO), and Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy (ARPA-E). Increasing funding for these offices, which use different financing schemes to invest in technologies at different stages of commercialization, is a direct way for the federal government to scale up American-made energy technologies. These three offices heave a proven ability to identify promising candidates for energy innovation.2 Increasing appropriations for these high-impact offices by $500M will represent a more than 10% increase in each offices’ budget: enough to make a difference, but not a dramatic departure from the budget increases already appropriated by Congress from FY 2019– FY 2020.

Broaden the definition of “qualifying facilities” to allow everyday Americans to participate in energy markets. Broadening the definition of “qualifying facility (QF)” in the Power Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) of 1978 to include energy storage, power quality factors, and demand response would require utilities to compensate energy providers for a wider range of services: i.e., services that go beyond simple energy production. The power grids of today and of the future are more than a collection of relatively fixed energy demands and supplies. Broadening the definition of QF would acknowledge the increasingly dynamic nature of the power grid, where excess supply often needs to be stored for later and where some portion of demand load can be shifted to different times of day. In particular, broadening the definition of QF would require utilities to (1) treat their own customers as first-class suppliers for a diverse set of potential use-cases in the energy marketplace and (2) properly compensate rate-payers for any services they provide to the power grid. Ensuring the market properly rewards customers for adopting novel clean-energy technologies will spur clean-energy market growth, drive innovation, and generate economic value for individual Americans newly able to participate in electricity markets.

Encourage construction of additional transmission capacity via tax incentives and loan programs. Tax credits have historically been a popular way for Congress to incentivize development of renewable energy such as wind and solar.3 By making the construction of additional transmission capacity similarly eligible for tax credits, Congress can support a critical piece of our nation’s grid infrastructure while creating construction jobs across the country.4

Frequently Asked Questions
What role can electric vehicles play in a smarter grid?

From the standpoint of the power grid, electric vehicles (EV) are essentially mobile batteries. EVs plugged in and their batteries used to store surplus renewable energy when production is high or return energy to the grid when renewable-energy production drops. However, this vehicle-to-grid exchange requires careful coordination between EV owners and utility operators. The current power grid is not designed to handle individual consumers returning power to the grid, and there is no way for utilities to compensate EV owners for the value they provide to utilities by doing so. A “smart grid” would create an electricity marketplace that EV owners could participate in. Such a marketplace would significantly improve the value proposition of EVs, encouraging EV uptake as well as domestic investment in advanced automobile manufacturing. Given that Tesla became America’s most valuable automobile company in 2020, the market has already seen the value that EVs have to offer. A smarter power grid will allow full capitalization of that value by consumers, industry, and our power grid.

In an increasingly divisive political environment, how can bipartisan support be generated for investment in energy infrastructure?

Investing in the U.S. power grid will benefit many constituent groups, allowing for a multifaceted approach to messaging. For instance:



  • Solar energy coupled with storage can lower electricity costs and reduce reliance on imported natural gas or propane for rural and isolated communities.

  • Certain U.S. geographic regions, such as the Southwest, contain some of the greatest natural renewable energy sources in the world. Directing federal incentives towards such areas will create jobs at the state and local level while reducing foreign energy dependence.

  • President Eisenhower passed the Interstate Highway Act by appealing to bipartisan support in a Cold War environment and helped create our modern road infrastructure. The transmission power grid, as the “interstate highway” for the electricity that powers America, is a similarly important piece of infrastructure that will help America maintain its national security and international competitiveness.

How do established or maturing clean-energy technologies relate to America’s economic and strategic interests?

Distributed clean-energy technologies, like energy storage, residential solar, on-shore and offshore wind, and electric vehicles are quickly reaching economies of scale. Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to ensure grid stability, optimize grid operations, and inform resource planning. High-voltage transmission lines and power inverters are critical parts of the infrastructure that makes up the backbone of the power grid. Each of these technologies presents an economic opportunity for the federal government to invest in building new infrastructure and spur private development, creating new jobs and industries in the process. In addition, many of these technologies are currently manufactured abroad or rely on minerals imported from foreign countries. The federal government should direct research funding towards technologies that do not rely on foreign imports and that leverage America’s existing manufacturing infrastructure and natural resources. Finally, maintaining a robust workforce of professionals who know how to manage and debug production processes will be important for ensuring that our nation is capable of translating American R&D into products that can be manufactured domestically. Following through on the Plan of Action outlined in this proposal will help open the power grid to broader participation and ensure cleaner, more equitable power distribution while simultaneously advancing American technical competitiveness and manufacturing capabilities.

Why is changing the definition of qualifying facilities under PURPA important to helping Americans achieve access to the power grid market?

The federal government’s recent involvement in the power market has focused on tax credits and R&D funding. Indeed, the Energy Act of 2020 injects significant federal funding to R&D funding programs and extends certain tax credits. While continued support for R&D funding is important and tax credits are an important market mechanism, amending PURPA is a different type of action altogether. By changing the definition of qualifying facilities, the federal government categorically changes the basis by which utilities buy power. Firmly establishing an expanded definition of QF via legislation will prevent non-elected bodies from arbitrating the definition of QFs either now or in the future. FERC performed such arbitration in 2020, to the detriment of energy storage projects and the chagrin of clean-energy trade associations.


Amending the definition will force the market to properly compensate consumer-provided services that provide value to the grid. For instance, smart thermostats can reduce electricity used for heating and cooling when energy supply drops or electric vehicles can be optimized to only charge when supply is ample. Incentivizing behavioral changes like these is critical for achieving a 100% clean power grid. Amending PURPA to allow Americans to invest in and earn returns on a broad range of energy technologies today will prepare the United States for the power grid of tomorrow.

Accelerating Deployment of Innovations to Modernize the U.S. Electric Grid

Grid modernization should be a major part of a national infrastructure-investment initiative. Effectively and efficiently modernizing the U.S. electric grid requires rapid deployment of innovative grid technologies. The next administration should establish a Grid Resilience Innovation Demonstration (GRID) Network, run in partnership between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DoD), to test and accelerate deployment of such technologies. The GRID Network would integrate and build on existing microgrids on federal installations and other relevant facilities, resulting in a group of geographically distributed test beds that can be managed and operated as a national user facility. The distributed nature of the network would allow test beds to ensure that solutions are compatible with a variety of grid technologies and operational structures and would also insulate the network from security threats, and other risks. Prioritizing establishment of the GRID Network early in the next administration will enable our nation to quickly realize the benefits of a modern electric grid, including enhanced resilience to natural disasters, entrepreneurship opportunities, and job growth. Failure to act will leave our national grid vulnerable to hostile actors, rob the country of needed shovel-ready construction projects and manufacturing jobs, and undermine U.S. leadership in electric sector innovation and the resulting impacts to our economy.

Challenge and Opportunity

The U.S. electric grid is a critical backbone of our nation’s economy, national security, health, and social interactions. Yet the current grid is ill-suited to modern demands. Our nation’s grid contains many critical components that were originally constructed in the early 20th century. The grid as a whole is based on an outdated structure that was not designed for today’s varying power demand requirements, such as for the internet data centers, or for the widescale integration of intermittent sources of electricity such as wind turbines and solar panels. The grid is also poorly equipped to withstand the many cyber, physical, and electromagnetic threats that exist today. 

These problems can cause extensive and expensive blackouts, such as the widespread outages across the Northeast in 2003 that cost $6 billion in damages. The possibility of foreign interference presents a threat multiplier. In 2015, a Russian assault on the Ukrainian grid cut power for six hours in the dead of winter. A similar attack on the U.S. grid is possible. In fact, the same malware the triggered the Ukraine attack has been found in US-based critical infrastructure facilities. 

There is a clear need to make the U.S. electric grid much more secure to thwart attacks, robust to withstand physical threats, resilient to ensure rapid and full recovery from adverse impacts, stronger to accommodate greater demands, and flexible to enable a broader deployment of clean-energy technologies.

Yet grid modernization is easier said than done. The U.S. electric grid is a massive, complex system that comprises various technologies for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution as well as multiple operators, regulators, and markets to ensure the continual flow of electricity. Few incentives or financially-attractive opportunities exist for grid stakeholders to demonstrate and deploy innovative models and technologies. And finally, the national-security benefits of a secure, robust, and resilient grid do not deliver direct, sufficient financial gains, creating a market failure that leaves the grid vulnerable to interference.

Plan of Action

The next administration should establish the Grid Resilience Innovation Demonstration (GRID) Network, a national-scale test facility designed to propel the nation toward a more secure, robust, and resilient grid that can strengthen economic and national security while enabling a clean-energy future. The GRID Network should comprise multiple, geographically distributed test beds that are widely accessible to institutions and researchers seeking to demonstrate technologies in prototypical environments. These test beds would be user facilities similar to those owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE).

The overall goal of the GRID Network would be to support development, demonstration, and deployment of innovations in grid operation and technology, which are needed to address the evolving energy needs and expanding risks. The types of innovations could run from small to large scale, and from technical to operations, for example, components for high-voltage transmission or distribution, smart meters and associated cyber controls, direct current connects and disconnects, and microgrid operations with a variety of sources, loads and sizes.

The GRID Network would focus on innovations at mid- to high technology-readiness levels, i.e., innovations that have already been demonstrated successful at a limited level and seem like promising candidates for scale-up and commercialization. GRID Network test beds would provide the capacity to test at all scales from individual components in situ up to full end-to-end tests from the electricity generator to the final use. As modernization of the grid continues to occur, the anticipated outcomes will continue to evolve, and this facility will enable more innovations to be developed rapidly and tested such that the decision and risk of implementation can be reduced, which in turn should facilitate deployment. After all, utilities and investors want proven technologies, not science projects. As a result, we will see a more resilient grid that is both more secure and more robust (i.e., less blackouts, more value, savings and/or avoided costs).

GRID Network test beds could serve as official sites for the government to validate and certify any concept or technology intended for use in national-security applications. Through partnerships with community colleges, test beds could also offer workforce-development opportunities and vocational training to prepare technicians to install and operate next-generation grid technologies.

Implicit in the proposed action is that there are innovative technologies and strategies for operation that could be tested and rapidly deployed. While this has not been demonstrated through a survey or collection of data, it is a reasonable assumption based on our knowledge of the research and development (R&D) that is being done in this area as well as some general issues that impact the rapid, successful advancement from R&D to demonstration and deployment (i.e., crossing the so-called “Valley of Death”). Having a user facility aimed at helping bridge that gap that is available to companies and researchers widely would encourage innovators and innovations to surface, as has been demonstrated to work well in the past in the DoD and DOE. A minimally viable prototype will be needed for testing, which focuses the role of the facility between “development” and “deployment.” The costs for testing would be covered by the government, and like the existing user facilities, access to apply for time on GRID would be open to all ideas through a merit-review process. As a result, innovators should be motivated to develop their ideas to a product or operations model that can be tested given the low or zero cost of testing because the value of a having a government-tested and demonstrated device or operating model will be very high.

As is typical for federally-funded user facilities, the GRID Network would be run by a private entity (e.g., an objective management organization) through a public-private partnership with government agencies: in this case, likely DoD and DOE. The partnership could be managed by either agency or by an external entity, such as the National Resilient Grid Authority (NRGA) conceptualized in a 2020 report from the National Commission on Grid Resilience. Existing microgrids and other assets at DoD and DOE sites could provide the foundation for the GRID Network. The GRID Network will also build on and enhance the grid-resilience and modernization efforts that were established and have been pursued at both agencies.

Establishing and managing the GRID Network would cost the Federal Government an estimated $25–50 million per year at the low end to $200–300 million per year at the high end. This funding range is consistent with the funding levels for similar research and development facilities that DOE and DoD have supported over the last 15 years. Funding at the high end would support more sophisticated, comprehensive testing equipment, would permit users to take more time to test ideas, and would permit testing of more high-risk, high-reward ideas. Funding at the high end would also support efforts beyond just testing, such as development of national standards and protocols for grid operations, pursuit of collaborative technologies that would benefit niche applications, such as defense resilience pilot projects, and technology certifications.

The U.S. electric grid must be modernized to enable more use of renewable energy, deploy storage, and assure we improve the resilience. A test facility, such as the GRID facility described above, could help with modernization and entice investments toward deployment of new technologies. As a result, federal investment in the GRID Network would pay off directly or indirectly in four key ways:

  1. Modernizing the U.S. electric grid will create shovel-ready construction jobs across the country. Since the GRID facility would be oriented toward rapid development and deployment of innovations, the facility could help enable aggressive and comprehensive modernization of the electric grid, which would involve construction jobs.
  2. Grid components that are critical to U.S. infrastructure and national security—ranging from sensors to transformers—must be made through a trusted U.S. supply chain. Investments in the GRID Network hence represent investments in American manufacturing.
  3. The GRID Network will support user generation of intellectual property and associated small business start-ups because some of the innovations that are tested and deployed will be manufactured, distributed and installed by start-ups, which will strengthen the U.S. supply chain. This new wave of business activity will propel the U.S. economy for years to come.
  4. Grid modernization is a huge effort that will cost at least $500 billion and likely $1–2 trillion. Investing in technologies that could facilitate modernization will retire risks for grid modernization as the decisions by the various grid operators will be based on testing at an applicable scale. As a result, the GRID facility should help ensure the costs for grid modernization are in the middle of the range rather than at the higher end or above.

Conclusion

The U.S. electric grid is a crucial piece of the nation’s infrastructure. If it fails, critical sectors such as finance, healthcare, transportation, defense, agriculture, and manufacturing are at risk of failure as well. Yet the grid remains unacceptably vulnerable to threats large and small. There is a real danger of attacks on the grid by adversarial nations, and natural disasters can wipe out large sections of the grid for hours, days, or longer. Even factors as seemingly trivial as mylar balloons, small arms fire, and broken tree branches can cause costly damage when they interfere with critical grid components. It is past time to create a more robust and resilient system. Creating a testing ground for innovative solutions in grid operations and technology is an important step: one that will not only shore up a glaring weakness in our national security, but will also boost our economy through shovel-ready construction projects, creation of new and good-paying jobs, and development of intellectual property.

Frequently Asked Questions
What pieces of this proposal are already in place?
The proposed GRID Network would leverage microgrids and other assets already distributed at DOE and DoD sites across the country. By linking these assets through a national-scale user facility, the GRID Network will ensure that these assets are put to their fullest use. The GRID Network would also build on and enhance the grid resilience and modernization efforts that both DOE and DoD have funded over the last 15 years.
How much does the federal government spend on the electric grid? What would additional spending achieve?
The amount the Federal Government spends on grid R&D and modernization varies but has been as high as $750 million and as low as about $50 million. The investment is supplemented by matching funds from private industry, as the grid is largely operated by private companies. There is not currently a federally-funded facility to support testing and scale-up of innovative grid operating models and technologies. Investing in such a facility would accelerate grid modernization and could perhaps cut grid-maintenance costs in the long term.
Why should the federal government take action on grid modernization instead of state or local government? What about the private sector?
Few systems are more complicated than the U.S. electric grid. The U.S. electric grid is managed by more than 3,000 public and private institutions (including generators, operators, and markets). Energy is often transmitted across state lines, which requires cooperation and coordination at multiple levels of government. As such, the private sector as well as state and local government will necessarily be involved in grid modernization. But in light of the importance of the grid to U.S. economic and national security, there are clear and specific roles for the Federal Government. For instance, the Federal Government can assure that new grid technologies and ideas have been tested and certified in order to mitigate risk of implementing those new technologies and ideas. The federal government can also help scale promising innovations quickly. A federally-funded GRID Network would be a key piece—but still only a piece—of a larger national grid-modernization effort.
Is the issue of grid modernization specific to the United States?

The technologies utilized in the U.S. electric grid is typical of electric grids in many other countries, particularly those that developed electricity distribution contemporaneously with the United States. However, the size and geographic diversity of our nation means that the U.S. electric grid is especially large and complex. To an extent, this complexity offers protection since no single attack or incident could impact the entirety of the national grid. However, our grid’s size and complexity also mean that coordinating grid modernization efforts in the United States is far more difficult than in other nations.


The GRID Network could help turn this bug into a feature. The United States has always excelled at out-innovating other countries, particularly for things at large scale. The GRID Network would allow U.S. innovators to field-test technologies and strategies in many different scenarios and conditions, and would help innovators commercialize promising solutions at a pace that other countries simply do not have the capacity to match. The GRID Network could hence address vulnerabilities in the U.S. grid while simultaneously enhancing the international competitiveness of our nation with respect to grid modernization.

What is the first step needed to get the GRID Network off the ground?
The first step is to develop a written plan that can form the basis for the funding requests and appropriations and the follow-on steps needed to establish the GRID Network. The plan would (1) identify the specific activities of the GRID Network, (2) inventory existing facilities and capabilities that could be integrated into the GRID Network, (3) identify new facilities and capabilities that would be needed to achieve GRID Network goals, (4) identify necessary approvals and propose an operating model for the facility, and (5) lay out a detailed roadmap for launching the facility, including conceptual cost, scope and schedule. Development of the plan should be carried out by a contractor and overseen by an interagency group.
What would a less ambitious version of this proposal look like?
The GRID Network could be operated at various scales: for instance, it could be piloted in a small
collection of states before being expanded nationwide. The roles and capabilities of component
test beds could be tailored based on available funding, and the path toward the full facility could
be established in the plan discussed above.