Out West student blog

Modeling the Western Interconnection: electricity, net-zero emissions, and reliability

On a weekend trip to Mendocino County - with a very windy beach! Image credit: Kaitlin Highstreet

Kaitlin Highstreet MS ‘22
Hometown: Los Gatos, CA
Civil Engineering, Sustainable Design & Construction
Intern, Western Electricity Coordinating Council

It seems like every week there is a new paper about the projected impacts of climate change or a new natural disaster impacting the world. With climate change’s effects becoming more frequent and intense, it’s easy to lose hope that the world can even make the necessary changes to decarbonize. This summer at WECC, I’ve built back some optimism that the electricity sector is moving toward a zero-emission future and that the talented and motivated teams working on electricity reliability are deeply and comprehensively considering the impact of the transition on those living in the West and beyond.

I have spent the summer in the Systems Adequacy Planning team at WECC, which models the electricity grid and possible futures on ten- and twenty-year time horizons. My core project, shared with another Shultz Fellow, is centered around investigating tools developed by national labs and universities that model nuances of electricity generation, transmission, potential, and land use. To this end, we have conducted nearly 40 interviews with internal and external stakeholders. We have learned about the goals and limitations of tools, their underlying assumptions, and the varied perspective of experts who confront electricity grid challenges with different backgrounds and training.

Challenges facing the electricity grid extend beyond extreme events and capacity of electricity generators. We have had conversations about the structure of the electricity market, transmission planning, land use and changes to land with climate change, and even the underlying fundamentals of scientific inquiry and investigation. These interviews have illustrated to me the complexity of the electricity grid and of planning for the future; one conversation mentioned the challenge presented by the “unknown unknowns.”

Despite the uncertainty we face from climate change, policy, markets, and other drivers, I find myself optimistic that the West can decarbonize without sacrificing reliability. A secondary project this summer has involved investigating emerging technologies: demand response, storage, hydrogen, and advanced nuclear. While not yet mature or cost-competitive, development of these technologies is well underway and frameworks are in place to rapidly commercialize them once demonstration projects prove viability. I dug deeper into specifically hydrogen and advanced nuclear and was pleasantly surprised to read about the stage of development of various Department of Energy-supported projects. Experts are investigating supply chains of fuel, decarbonization of ancillary equipment manufacture, cost reduction, safety, and modeling. Demonstration projects will mostly conclude by 2030, and infrastructure is being developed to rapidly commercialize after that.

Researching the stage of emerging technologies and speaking to industry experts who focus on different aspects of the electricity grid has sometimes overwhelmed me, given the complexity of the problems, but more than anything, it has left me confident that the right people are on the job and that the solutions are out there and are scaling to meet the urgent need.


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