The NEC Energy Solutions Blog

USDA working to stimulate grid investments in rural parts of U.S.

Making energy grid upgrades in rural regions is extremely difficult. The geographical conditions in rural areas force utility providers to perform long cable runs to get power to different locations and, as such, create major maintenance and disaster response challenges as those long stretches of cables are much harder to repair. Emerging technologies can resolve many of the challenges that come with delivering power to rural communities, and the United States Department of Agriculture is working to stimulate growth in this area.

The USDA's effort to improve grids in rural regions
The USDA recently announced a project that will involve loaning utility providers in rural regions approximately $263.3 million to spend on grid upgrades, including projects that within the broad designation of smart grid investments. It is important to remember that smart grid projects can take many forms, and the funding isn't just about intelligent grid architectures, it is also about providing broad improvements to rural grids to help communities offer more reliable, cost-efficient power delivery. Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary for the USDA, explained that effective power delivery plays a vital role in supporting economic growth in rural regions.

"America's infrastructure must be modernized if we are to continue to create jobs, expand opportunity and be competitive in the global economy," said Vilsack. "Modernizing our nation's rural electric infrastructure will help better support economic development in rural areas while helping to ensure reliable and affordable electric service for people who live and work in small communities across the country."

The loan program involves eight states, including Virginia, Indiana, Kansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina. All told, the new USDA-funded projects will lead to upgrades on or the creation of 3,700 miles of power lines.

Energy storage and rural power delivery
To be clear, none of the projects detailed in the USDA press release specifically mention energy storage, instead, the efforts focus on broad upgrades and smart grid investments by various utility providers in rural regions. However, these baseline investments could end up establishing the kind of grid features that serve as a foundation for future investments in areas like energy storage systems. With that hypothetical in mind, it is important to think about the unique role lithium ion batteries and similar technologies can benefit utility providers in rural regions.

As we already discussed, the geographical challenges facing rural utility providers are substantial. If a power line between two towns is damaged it could leave one or both locations without energy and it could take hours or even days to reroute power, balance transmission frequencies throughout the grid, find the damaged line and make repairs. This challenge could be alleviated if rural utilities depend more heavily on variable renewable resources as a backup option in rural communities.

Purchasing energy from solar or wind farms and storing that power in lithium ion batteries gives utilities in rural areas an alternative energy delivery option when the traditional architectures aren't getting the job done. Regardless of whether the grid is simply overloaded on a hot summer day or down because of damages caused by a storm, utility providers can put batteries with stored energy from renewable sites into a truck, drive them to locations without power and use the batteries to consumers and businesses with minimal delay.

Energy storage solutions can be used in conjunction with traditional generation methods as well, but the advantage of renewables goes beyond sustainability. Storing energy during peak generation times, such as windy nights or sunny summer afternoons, allows utilities to take advantage of low cost power and have that available during emergencies.

While the USDA focuses on stimulating core improvements to rural energy grids, emerging power delivery models built around renewables and energy storage hold the potential to maximize the value of current investments.

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