How Disruptive Thinking Can Build a Smarter Grid
Did you hear about the recent Stanford study that concluded that organic food doesn’t deliver more nutrients than conventionally-grown food? So what? Consumers don’t buy organic food to get more vitamins and minerals. Consumers buy organic to avoid the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides present in conventionally-grown food.
Similarly, the motivation for food “locavores” isn’t about eating locally produced food because it carries more nutritional value. It’s about creating healthy economic ecosystems that support local food producers and local jobs. It’s about avoiding the carbon footprints of transporting carrots a thousand miles when they can be sourced closer to the point of consumption.
Food and health activists talk about food deserts in the USA –often inner-city areas blighted with poverty – that lack sources of fresh and affordable produce. These neighborhoods’ most prevalent food choices are heavily processed and loaded with extra salt and sugar. The food choices available to consumers in food deserts have significant consequences to their health and well-being.
Let’s apply these ideas to energy. Our traditional electrical grid design has created energy deserts – areas that rely entirely on energy transported over significant distances. Estimates range between 7-9% of the electricity in high-voltage transmission lines is lost from point of generation to distribution substations. To make up for these losses, we generate more –creating even more carbon emissions if the fuel sources are coal or natural gas, and driving up costs.
Distance creates vulnerabilities too. In western states where summers and autumns are now routinely renamed “the fire season”, transmission assets are vulnerable to fire damage. In other states, extreme weather can do significant damage to transmission lines and towers. The current electrical grid creates energy deserts and lacks the resiliency and reliability that modern society requires for its safety, health, and economic well-being. It also forces us into limited options for the sources of our electricity.
The similarities between today’s food production and transport and electricity generation and transmission extend to solutions too. Renewable sources of electricity – like wind and solar – can eliminate carbon footprints. That gives consumers the choice to avoid carbon emissions just like they can avoid substances in and on their food. Distributed generation and microgrids that use renewable sources of electricity also create local jobs to support installation and ongoing production.
So why shouldn’t states with renewable generation potential encourage as much investment as possible in microgrids and distributed generation to eliminate energy deserts and improve local economies? Smart Grid technologies certainly enable a number of paths to increased grid reliability and resiliency. It’s a great question to pose to the California legislators that defeated SB 843 in committee and the utilities that opposed it.
As previously reported, this bill would have enabled all Californians to participate in investments of local renewable generation in the distribution grid – not just the Californians fortunate enough to own property that is conducive to renewable generation. One of the interesting aspects of the bill was that it offered a new definition of locational value that recognized the costs or benefits in dollars (per kilowatt or kilowatthour) for avoided transmission line losses as well as other financial considerations. Two of the three investor-owned utilities (IOUs) – Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) opposed this bill. PG&E’s senior vice president for energy procurement, Fong Wan, wrote in a recent opinion piece that PG&E was concerned about the “burdens placed on the customers who choose to not participate.”
There certainly is a need to ensure that all ratepayers benefit from distributed generation programs that fairly allocate benefits as well as costs incurred to support grid upgrades. However, today’s grid vulnerabilities can readily starve us of electricity. Today’s policies make us live in energy deserts. Continuing “business as usual” grid operations and policies is not the answer. The benefits that microgrids and distributed renewables deliver in terms of increased grid reliability and resiliency can benefit all ratepayers, and this bill would have been a good start in that direction by expanding investment opportunities and benefits to greater numbers of Californians.
What makes this bill’s failure particularly frustrating is that there are new innovations on the horizon that further decrease the deployment costs for solar (read about this example) as well as revolutionary designs that make small wind turbines an effective source of energy even in areas with low wind speeds. These revolutionary solutions really do make the promise of local generation of energy into reality for increasing numbers of “prosumers”, and accelerate the benefits of the Smart Grid too. A couple of these will be featured in upcoming articles.
We may never have a catchy Smart Grid slogan that is equivalent to “tastes great, less filling,” but grid modernization offers an extraordinary opportunity to redefine its design, operations, markets, and roles that consumers play. Disruptive thinking outside the confines of a 100+ year old grid model can serve us well to accommodate innovative technologies, policies, and participants – just like it’s doing for our food system.
Image: Power Grid via Shutterstock
Christine Hertzog is the founder and Managing Director of SGL Partners and the Smart Grid Library, delivering consulting and information services in the Smart Grid and Smart Infrastructure ecosystems. Her firm provides pragmatic guidance to vendors, utilities, and governmental entities, covering a broad range of needs such as market entry strategies and design and deployment of ...
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