May 22, 2024

Collaboration, Data Sharing, and Community Engagement are Key to Building a Resilient Grid

Experts from across climate science, the power sector, community engagement, and more gathered in Seattle, Washington to discuss the challenges in building a resilient grid—as well as possible solutions

Photograph shows a sign that says "ResiliEX Summit; Welcome" in front of windows looking into a conference room.

Researchers, policymakers, grid experts, and community outreach experts gathered in Seattle, Washington, to discuss how to plan a resilient power grid in the face of climate change.

(Photo courtesy of Wesley Matlock | Seattle City Light)

As climate change brings hotter summers, colder winters, and more extreme droughts and storms, the name of the game is resilience—especially for the nation’s power grid, which provides electricity to more than three hundred million people across the United States. A resilient power grid can not only withstand climate change’s extremes and provide reliable power to homes and businesses, but also bounce back quickly from major disruptions.

But much work is needed to make sure the power grid remains resilient in the face of climate change.

Last month, experts across science and engineering, policy, grid operations, and community engagement gathered for the second Grid Resilience to Extreme Events Summit (ResiliEX 2.0) in Seattle, Washington. Co-hosted by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and Seattle City Light, the Summit brought together a range of experts to identify challenges and solutions in building a more resilient power grid.

“Everyone here realizes they can’t do this alone, and they need to learn from each other. The utility planners need to understand and learn from the climate scientists, the climate scientists need to learn from utilities, and everyone needs to learn from communities. During this event, we made great progress in building those bridges,” said Juliet Homer, systems engineer at PNNL and one of ResiliEX 2.0’s organizers.

Here are three key takeaways from the ResiliEX 2.0 Summit:

Climate science has become more accessible to grid operators, but more can be done

To plan a resilient grid, policymakers and grid operators need to understand how climate change might affect their respective regions. For example, heat waves and cold snaps increase load and disrupt energy delivery, wildfires now result in public safety power shutoffs, and atmospheric rivers and reduced snowfall impact seasonal water storage for hydropower. Understanding these events—how frequent they are now, how that might change in the future—can inform planning and investment.

Climate change science and data is more accessible to grid operators than ever before. For instance, the Electric Power Research Institute created Climate READi, a program that provides training and overall climate literacy. Some states, like California, have developed tools like Cal-Adapt, which provides a wide range of climate data to researchers, policymakers, and the energy sector.    

Researchers are also working to understand phenomena like compound energy droughts: times when cloudy weather coincides with stagnant air, causing a simultaneous decrease in both wind and solar energy. That research, as well as investigations into related events like droughts, floods, and wildfires, will help scientists understand ways that extreme events can be linked and how to plan for them.

But more can be done, conference attendees agreed. Climate scientists at the meeting suggested that grid operators could be more specific with what kind of variables—temperature, moisture, wind, etc.—they’re most interested in learning about, as well as how grid operators use the data they access. Representatives from smaller utilities noted that with fewer resources, they have a harder time accessing and interpreting climate change data.

“As climate scientists, we see all the potential for climate data and technology to help with grid resilience. We are here to learn how we can make that data the most useful for decision makers, including grid planners, policymakers, and communities,” said Nathalie Voisin, chief scientist for water-energy dynamics at PNNL and one of the Summit’s organizers.

We must engage communities early and often when planning energy projects

Many energy projects, such as solar or wind farms or transmission lines, get delayed for years because community members weren’t brought into the planning process early enough. Conference attendees recognized that even before planning starts, utilities and grid operators need to engage with and build trust within communities where energy infrastructure will be built, as well as help them understand how grid updates will protect it from the effects of climate change.

“Deep trust works at the speed of relationship-building to bring collective resilience,” said Paulina Lopez, Executive Director of the Duwamish River Community Coalition, during a panel on community engagement.

Photograph shows four people standing around a sign that says ResiliEX Summit, smiling at the camera.
Jonathan Lewis, Patrick Freeland, and Paulina Lopez participated in a panel at the ResiliEX Summit 2.0 about the importance of community engagement. The panel was moderated by PNNL engineer and advisor, Jennifer Yoshimura. (Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Yoshimura | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Adding to that, Patrick Freeland, Senior Tribal Climate Resilience Liaison of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, said that “engaging Tribes as equal partners from the beginning benefits everyone. This understanding is not merely procedural; it is a recognition of the inherent rights and leadership roles of Tribes in shaping a resilient and equitable energy future.”

Economic benefits of energy projects in rural or Tribal areas aren’t always obvious when the energy produced might be shipped far away. Attendees representing these communities urged others to think of ways to bring economic or educational benefits, such as long-term job training or contracting opportunities to rural and Tribal regions.

“Planning needs to happen with business owners, mayors, councilmembers. You can’t move forward without engaging the whole community, and community leaders can help,” added Jonathan Lewis, Director of Support Services at Klickitat Valley Health.

Lewis also noted that it might be more useful to those community leaders if utilities and climate scientists framed the importance of resilience in terms of extreme events. Many communities have experienced the devastation a wildfire can bring, for example, and could easily recognize why it’s important to bolster grid infrastructure against such an event.

Planning needs to happen regionally, not just state-by-state

The effects of climate change won’t follow state boundaries, and conference attendees discussed the importance of regional rather than state-by-state planning. The task won’t be easy—each state has its own policies, its own values, its own language regarding what is a benefit and a cost of a resilient grid. And when energy being generated in one state actually powers another state far away, it’s difficult to determine who pays for what.

To illustrate the value of regional cooperation, Dmitry Kosterev from the Bonneville Power Administration shared how power from neighboring regions supported the Pacific Northwest during a dangerous cold snap in January 2024. Extreme cold temperatures caused wind suppression across Oregon and Washington, greatly reducing power production from their wind generation fleet. Although many lost power during that week, energy imported from California, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia averted much more dire conditions.

Conference attendees agreed: Despite challenges, collaboration is paramount to building a resilient grid, and events like ResiliEX are important steps to network and share knowledge. Climate scientists, utility planners, communities, and policymakers need to work together to find the solutions.