(TNS) — Mammoth coal plants and other fossil fuel facilities have functioned like a collective human heart for more than a century, working 24/7 to pump the constant flow of electrons needed to power up daily life.

Likewise, a massive web of substations, transmission lines and distribution networks has functioned like an intricate web of veins that carry lifeblood throughout the body, channeling electrons from centralized plants to every nook and cranny of society.

But that aging system of electric generation is undergoing massive heart surgery as the U.S. replaces its coal and other fossil fuel plants with renewable energy.

And unlike yesterday’s 24/7, centralized generating facilities, today’s emerging grid relies on many different hearts to pump out electricity, with solar, wind, energy storage and peaking gas plants scattered among different places and offering electricity at different times of day rather than around the clock.

That emerging system even includes new, tiny hearts called distributed generation, in which solar systems and other power sources are placed directly on rooftops or next to buildings to provide electricity for individual homes and businesses. And they, in turn, send excess energy produced back to the broader grid, while also receiving power from utilities when the individual, or distributed system isn’t producing enough electricity.

As multiple forms of generation replace the old, 24/7 centralized systems, the transmission and distribution grid also needs a total makeover to create a modern network that can send and receive electricity from multiple sources at different times of day in real time – or, well, in a heartbeat.

To do that, states across the U.S. are working to thoroughly modernize the transmission and distribution grid. And New Mexico is jumping full force into that effort through a new grid modernization bill, House Bill 233, approved during this year’s legislative session with broad bipartisan support and now awaiting the governor’s signature to become law.

The bill could help bring New Mexico’s electric system into the 21st century, easing the state’s transition into a carbon-free network that relies primarily on renewable resources, said Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst.

“New Mexico’s transmission and distribution grid is pretty antiquated,” Cottrell Propst said. “We need to make significant investments to modernize it.”

New transmission lines, for example, are essential to channel electrons from solar and wind facilities – often built in remote places such as eastern New Mexico – to population centers where the energy is consumed, said HB 233 co-sponsor Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces.

“That’s key to unlocking the full renewable energy potential for our state,” Small said.

Beyond new transmission, the grid needs 21st century technology for real-time connections and communication. That includes modern devices – both software and hardware – to allow utilities to monitor electric produc-tion from many power plants and distri-buted generation systems to be able to make and execute decisions in an instant to keep electrons flowing nonstop, said Jon Hawkins, Public Service Company of New Mexico associate director for innovation and communications.

“Renewables are rapidly becoming a much bigger part of the grid, and we need to be able to manage it all with modern systems, including automation to reroute power from different places,” Hawkins said. “… We need all-encompassing capability to monitor things and communicate in real time with cybersecurity built in. All of that will help us integrate more renewables on the system while still balancing the grid to make sure it remains resilient and reliable.”

Such upgrades will enable two-way communications between utilities and customers, allowing consumers and businesses to automatically shut things off and on as needed to conserve energy, especially in periods when demand is particularly high. That will give consumers more control over consumption, saving them money while advancing systemwide energy efficiency as utilities distribute electricity more efficiently, Cottrell Propst said.

“There are so many new, innovative technologies on the distribution side, such as smart meters that can revolutionize how we use and save energy and balance it all better for efficiency, from homes and businesses on up,” Cottrell Propst said.

In addition, modern communications, monitoring and control systems will help PNM and other utilities integrate their grids with emerging regional energy markets where utilities across multiple states buy and sell electricity as needed in instantaneous decisions based on price and availability. PNM, for example, will soon become a member of the Western Energy Imbalance Market, a real-time wholesale energy trading system.

“Modernization will allow us to integrate the state grid more on a regional basis so New Mexico is not so much an island in how it manages the production and flow of electricity,” Cottrell Propst said.

HB 233 offers three new tools to modernize the grid, said co-sponsor Rep. Melanie Ann Stansbury, D-Albuquerque, including:

  • A mandate for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to develop a “road map” for grid modernization.
  • A new grant program administered by EMNRD to help public entities such as municipalities, counties, state agencies, public schools, higher education institutions, and Native American tribes to finance proposed modernization projects.
  • A change in the Public Utility Act to allow PNM and the state’s two other investor-owned utilities to submit applications to the Public Regulation Commission for grid modernization projects, enabling them to recover costs through rate riders or in base rates.

“We believe those three things combined will help produce a big impact on efforts to modernize the grid,” Stansbury said. “It’s a good-government bill, because at least 30 other states today are working on grid modernization. New Mexico is playing catch-up.”

To build the road map, EMNRD has formed a new Grid Modernization Working Group with public and private sector representatives, including experts from the national laboratories and universities, said Energy Conservation and Management Division Director Louise Martinez.

“It will include broad input to work on it collectively over the next year,” Martinez said.

No state money is included this year for the new grant program. EMNRD will seek alternative funding, particularly from federal sources.

“We’ll go after federal money pretty aggressively,” Cottrell Propst said.

A separate bill sponsored by Small, HB 50, could also help private transmission developers raise funds for new projects. That bill, also awaiting the governor’s signature, would allow the state and counties to approve Industrial Revenue Bonds for transmission projects for the first time, something currently reserved for generation facilities.

©2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.