As President Biden’s ambitious infrastructure plan winds its way through Congress, many are hoping that the billions of dollars targeted at modernizing the nation’s electricity infrastructure will prevent another Texas-style electrical grid failure. While the $100 billion infrastructure investment is a welcome relief for energy experts who have been tearing their hair out for decades calling for investment in our grid, we need to do more than update our transmission wires if we are to truly modernize our electricity infrastructure. We need to rethink our whole approach.
When the Texas power grid went down in February, leaving millions of residents without power for weeks, it was a perfect storm of contributing factors — but it wasn’t just a failure of infrastructure, it was a failure of infrastructure planning. With climate change, storms, and severe weather events occurring more and more frequently, planning becomes increasingly critical. While we can’t predict each disaster exactly, we can and should plan for disasters to happen.
What we need is a grid of grids. At Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech), for more than 10 years, we’ve had our own microgrid that integrates a high-reliability distribution system, smart metering and renewable energy sources to boost overall efficiency, demand response and resiliency. One of the first functioning microgrids in the nation, the Illinois Tech microgrid incorporates solar panels, wind turbines, LED street lights and charging stations for electric vehicles. If necessary, the Illinois Tech system can disconnect from the broader power grid, making the campus self-sufficient during emergencies such as severe weather events or even cyberattack.