July 28, 2021 Read More →

Vermont utility sets course for decentralizing electric grid

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Visitors entering a code-locked central control room at Green Mountain Power (GMP)’s Colchester, Vt., headquarters instinctively lower their voices, whispering in deference to operators relaying orders from behind semicircular clusters of screens. It’s an intimidating space; one side of the black-walled room is taken up by a display showing a sprawling, yellow-lit maze of connections and symbols: a map of electricity flowing across the local grid. Technicians here have the daunting job of managing that vast, interconnected network; controlling hundreds of breaker switches; monitoring solar and hydroelectric electrical output; and anticipating energy demand spikes to keep Vermont’s lights on. When there’s an outage, these operators help coordinate the painstaking work of bringing the system back online.

“It’s basically like a puzzle,” says Jeff Lawrence, a seven-year control-room veteran. “When a storm comes through, the puzzle falls apart. You’ve got to put it back together, one piece at a time.”

In Vermont and around the country, those puzzle pieces have been falling apart more often as climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent and severe. Last month, extreme high temperatures pushed power grids in the Pacific Northwest to their limits, while around 700 people were killed during Texas’ massive power outages this past winter. “It’s heartbreaking to see weather events come through, and to see the impacts of climate change happening all over the country,” says Green Mountain Power CEO Mari McClure, sitting in a conference room at company headquarters.

McClure speaks in measured tones, drawing shapes with her hands as she explains that, in part to mitigate the threat of climate change, GMP is in the process of transforming its grid. It’s moving away, she says, from large generator plants and long transmission lines, and toward a more decentralized approach premised on technologies like networks of utility-connected devices and new, cheaper battery storage, in a system meant to protect against massive power outages and hasten a transition away from fossil fuels. McClure, onetime MVP of the University of Buffalo’s women’s basketball team, is fond of sports metaphors. “You play hard, and winning takes care of itself,” she says. “That’s the analogy to our transformation work.” But just as in a basketball game, when it comes to the gargantuan task of remaking the nation’s power grid to avoid climate catastrophe, the clock is running out.

[Alejandro de la Garza]

More: This Vermont Utility Is Revolutionizing Its Power Grid to Fight Climate Change. Will the Rest of the Country Follow Suit?

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