Experts on Camera

Dr. Joshua Rhodes: Modernizing the electric grid

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Growing demand for renewable energy and concerns about wildfires and other grid-related risks are compelling communities to reconsider how they generate, store, and transmit electricity.

On Wednesday, November 15, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. He discussed topics including: how electricity is generated and stored to meet fluctuating demand; renewable energy sources and advanced technologies that are changing where electricity is generated; how adaptations like burying powerlines and increasing storage capacity can make electric grids more resilient to a changing climate and disasters; the impact of large-scale electrification of homes and cars; smart grids that allow for two-way communication between utilities and customers; and how the electricity sector interacts with other sectors, such as natural gas, water, hydrogen, etc.

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JOSHUA RHODES: My name is Joshua Rhodes. I’m a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, and I study energy systems.

Interview with SciLine

What is the grid?


JOSHUA RHODES: The grid is basically the way that electricity gets to you—everything from the power plants that make electricity to the large wires and poles that move large amounts of electricity over long distances to the wires and poles that maybe bring that electricity that last mile to your home or to where you work. The grid is basically one of the world’s largest machines, and it gets electricity from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed.

How has electricity been generated historically in the United States?


JOSHUA RHODES: Historically in the U.S., we’ve generated electricity mostly using coal. We burn coal to boil water to make steam to turn a turbine to spin a generator to make that electricity. Then, we graduated on to things like petroleum. We made a lot of electricity using oil and natural gas. And lately, we’ve been making a lot more electricity using other forms of energy—like wind and solar and nuclear.

How are renewable energy sources changing when and where electricity is generated?


JOSHUA RHODES: Originally, whenever we needed electricity, we could just tell a power plant to turn on. We would start burning fuel and making that electricity. Now with renewables, we are generating energy whenever the wind’s blowing, or the sun’s shining. And also—where the wind blows, and the sun shines best is not always exactly where we built power plants before. So, we might need to move that electricity over longer distances and build more transmission lines. And so, these technologies are not only changing how we generate electricity, but they’re changing where we generate electricity.

How do electricity suppliers respond to fluctuations in demand, and what role does storage play?


JOSHUA RHODES: Electricity suppliers respond to changes in demand by changing the amount of electricity that they’re generating. Because with with electricity, you have to match supply and demand in real time. So, all of the electricity that you’re currently used to run your computer or to light your house is being generated or put on the grid at this exact instant. Now, with new technologies like wind and solar that don’t always—that we can’t control exactly when they generate electricity, we’re more and more putting that electricity when it’s generated, into batteries, such that it can be used later, maybe whenever we want to consume it.

What can be done to make the electric grid more resilient to climate change and disasters?


JOSHUA RHODES: The number one thing we can do to make the electric grid more resilient to climate change and other disasters are to plan for climate change and those other disasters. A lot of times the way we plan for the future of the energy system or the electricity system is by looking into the past and seeing kind of—looking at historical weather and historical events and seeing how the grid responded to those and then getting it ready to basically respond to them again. The thing with climate change is looking back is not going to be a good indication of what’s coming in the future. And so better planning for future events, future climates, future potentially more intense storms will give us a better feel for how we need to evolve the grid such that it is able to handle those events.

How is large-scale electrification of homes and cars affecting electricity suppliers and the grid?


JOSHUA RHODES: The electrification of a lot of end uses—like building heating and transportation—is going to increase the amount of energy—is going to increase the amount of electricity that we use to power our modern lives. And so we’re going to have to generate more electricity to power that future. Things like electric vehicles are not only changing how much energy we use, but they’re also changing when we use energy. If we come home and plug in our cars, that can create a lot of load at a certain time of the day. And grid operators need to be either prepared to incentivize people to charge at different times, or to meet that new demand. And things like the electrification of heat might create more peak demand in times like winter, where as historically, peak demand has been more in summer associated with air conditioning. And so the electrification of all these ends uses is going to change not only how much electricity we use but also when we use that electricity—both of which we’re going to have to prepare for.

What are smart grids?


JOSHUA RHODES: Smart grids are essentially an information overlay to the system that moves our electricity around. And it allows information to flow with the electricity, say, the current price of electricity or the carbon intensity of electricity. And that allows end users to make more informed decisions about how much and when they use that energy. But it also allows information to flow back to the utility about what end uses are consuming that energy—whether it’s charging electric vehicles or running air conditioners—and utility planners can use that information to better plan for the grid of the future and how things might be changing. And so essentially, the smart grid—the way it works is it works on information. It’s basically like in an internet for our electricity system.

How does the electricity sector interact with other sectors?


JOSHUA RHODES: The electricity sector interacts with other sectors in a couple different ways. So, the electricity sector consumes fuels from other sectors, like the coal and the natural gas sector, and the parts of the economy that create the nuclear fuels and things like that. And it consumes those fuels to make electricity. It also consumes a lot of water for cooling for our thermal power plants—for coal, natural gas and nuclear fleet. The electricity sector also interacts with other parts of the economy by producing energy sources that they use. And so, for instance, if we have cheap and abundant electricity, then maybe our industrial sectors can be more competitive on the global market. So, the electricity sector operates kind of between a lot of other sectors in the U.S. economy. And it is part of the glue that holds it all together.

What’s next for the electricity sector?


JOSHUA RHODES: One of the biggest energy stories, I think, that we’re going to be seeing in the future is about how much electricity use is growing. In the U.S. in the past decade, we’ve actually seen pretty flat electricity growth. But I think that’s going to change pretty soon with the electrification of heat and electric vehicles. And training AI models through in data centers. I think the electricity sector, while it’s been dormant for about a decade or so, is really going to have to get back into growth mode, which on some levels is going to probably cause growing pains. But it’s also going to be easier to invest in a sector that’s growing, versus one that’s been stagnant for a while. And so I mean, I think that’s one of the things we’re really going to start seeing shortly is how much more in electricity—in particular in the U.S.—that we’re consuming.

What advice do you have for reporters covering electricity?

[Posted November 15, 2023 | Download video]