Friday, February 27, 2015

Not Your Father’s Electric Grid

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director - 

It is said that Alexander Graham Bell would scratch his head if he tried to operate today’s smartphones. On the other hand, if Thomas Edison inspected our current electric grid, he would see power plants and distribution lines that are fairly similar to the grid he helped establish in the early 1900s (although it uses mostly alternating current instead of the direct current he advocated; but that’s another story).
My bet is that in the not-too-distant future, Edison will be just as confused as Bell.
We are going through a transition in how we generate and consume electricity in this country. From the integration of more renewable energy sources to advancements in energy efficiency to the development of smart devices (the so-called “Internet of things”), the electricity infrastructure that we know today is likely to change in the coming decades.
As technology evolves and “distributed” generation sources, such as solar panels and small wind turbines, become more affordable, we are likely to see a shift in the way power is generated. Whereas today electricity generally comes from large central stations and is transmitted across a network of transmission and distribution lines, in the future those sources of power may be less concentrated and more distributed across a wide variety of providers, including utility customers.
Even the terminology of the electricity business is changing with new terms being coined to describe this new energy paradigm. Have you heard of a “prosumer?” That’s a word resulting from the conflation of the terms “proactive” and “consumer” to describe a new kind of utility customer. A “prosumer” is a customer who takes an active role in the management of his energy usage through interaction with his energy provider, including power generated on-site. Another word sometimes used in this discussion is“new-tility,” which, of course, describes a new kind of entity that is part provider of kilowatt-hours and part provider of a broader range of energy-related services.
One of the key areas of disagreement in this discussion is the pace at which the grid will be transformed. At a recent panel discussion that I attended on the future of electricity generation, one of the speakers boldly proclaimed that electric utilities in Colorado and across the country will soon (within five years or so) be selling a lot less power as more and more people install solar panels on their rooftops. The speaker argued that a transition in power supply choices from traditional central station fossil fuel-fired generating plants to a more dispersed system charged by renewable energy will happen sooner rather than later.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with today’s electric grid. Although some folks talk about the need to “modernize” the grid, it is already a marvel of technology and a testament to the thousands of utility employees who built it and kept it running for decades. The National Academy of Engineering concluded that among all of the amazing feats of engineering of the 20th century, including the Internet, the automobile and the airplane, the electric grid had the greatest impact on our quality of life. Today, the grid provides an amazing level of reliability and comfort to hundreds of millions of Americans, and electric co-ops are central to that success.
While there is no doubt changes are coming, I tend to believe it will be a gradual glide path that will take more than a few years. Of course, a breakthrough in storage technology could be a game-changer, but today that black swan technology appears to be on the distant horizon. We bring in the most knowledgeable folks we can find in the energy storage field each year to the CREA Energy Innovations Summit, and repeatedly they tell us that, while great progress is being made, there is a still a lot of work to do before an affordable storage solution can be widely used.
The challenge for electric co-ops in this evolving energy paradigm is to keep our eyes and minds open to new and evolving technologies while at the same time doing what we have always done: make sure that you have the electricity you need, when you need it and at a price that you can afford. For now, that means the continued use of proven resources that run reliably and affordably, including fossil fuel-fired generating plants.
Copyright 2011 by Colorado Rural Electric Association