In the future, the central challenge for the US will be obtaining power that is both clean and “firm,” in the parlance of energy nerds. “The real failing of Texas was the reliance upon the natural gas backbone as the firm power source, which of course wasn't so firm, as they later learned,” says David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. He’s a coauthor on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report coincidentally released today called The Future of Electric Power in the United States. “If you want to decarbonize the grid, and keep power reliable, then you've got to have a clean, firm power source,” he continues. “That's the central goal.”
But the US grid isn’t going to make the wide-scale sharing of clean energy easy—exporting solar energy from the Southwest, for instance, and wind energy from the Midwest. That’s because the mainland grid is divided into three sections. The Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection meet at the eastern borders of Colorado and Wyoming, splitting the country in two. The Texas Interconnection is divorced from both in the name of energy independence, though it doesn’t trace neatly to the state’s borders—some of the panhandle is actually part of the Eastern Interconnection. And in the northern and southern parts of the US, our grids intertwine with those run by our neighbors. There’s a Quebec grid that exchanges power across the border with New England. The Pacific Northwest similarly exchanges with British Columbia, and Southern California with a little bit of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.Each of these grids more or less does its own thing: Utility companies generate power and ferry it around their territories. These utilities are typically owned by a state, a municipality, or investors. The utilities regularly exchange power within an interconnection as energy demand waxes and wanes in a given area thanks to heat waves or cold snaps. So, for instance, in the West, high-voltage transmission towers carry electricity between Washington, Oregon, and California. But neither the eastern nor the western half of the national grid sticks tendrils into Texas in a way that would have let the state borrow large amounts of power when facing a massive, sudden freeze.
Indeed, a 2017 study by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that if California hits its goal of getting 1.5 million EVs on its roads by 2025, and “some” of them had the ability to transfer energy into the grid, their batteries would easily exceed the state’s energy storage needs.
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It’s not that the Western and Eastern Interconnections don’t exchange any power at all—they do it here and there at the local level. But they’re not thoroughly connected by those big high-voltage lines, which are the only way to carry electricity long distances. The Rocky Mountains quite effectively separate East and West. “It's really evolved that way because in that part of the country, there just wasn't much infrastructure,” says Jeff Dagle, chief electrical engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “And so nobody had an economic reason to build a bunch of high-voltage transmission lines to connect the grids together.”