How Will The Future Electrical Energy Grid Effect Me? Answer: That all depends upon you, but probably a lot. This topic is so vast, I’ll need to give you some reading material via links along the way to “educate” you, which is the whole purpose of this series in the first place.
I’ll begin with an excerpt from Cleantech investor Rob Day:
“First, a couple of basic principles.
The distribution end of the grid is becoming much more complex. We are introducing distributed and community-scale generation, energy storage, and even new significant loads (EVs, for example). This could potentially be quite destabilizing for the substation-and-upward utility at high saturation levels, hence the (in my opinion, much overwrought) concerns about rooftop solar. But these new factors are all potentially networkable and thus controllable, or at least able to be monitored and adapted to in real time.
The utility distribution grid workforce is becoming older over time, and is also under increasing pressure from more erratic and severe weather events. Backfilling the workforce accordingly would be extremely expensive without relying a lot more on automation. So there will be more automation.
Finally, as the overall utility grid operator is increasingly under pressure to keep everything balanced while attempting to manage an aggregation of increasingly variable yet oft-correlated distribution nodes, they will turn even more to pricing and incentive schemes that encourage load stabilization at the node level, as well as capacity-on-demand when needed from one node to another.
By “node,” of course, I’m referring to the distribution grid from the distribution substation through to the customer premises. It’s oversimplified (for one thing, the right scale may be a geographic cluster of such “nodes”; I’m just shorthanding here), but for the purposes of this column, it’s easiest to think of the utility as managing the supply of power (i.e., both capacity and transmission hardware) to a collection of such nodes, each of which isn’t connected to one another, only to the utility grid. The utility owns some of the node, the customer owns the edge of the node (e.g., the actual demand-producing equipment), but we need to increasingly think of them as an integrated whole, connecting intranode via networked automation as enabled and incentivized by utility-framed economics and control.”
Now if that doesn’t at least start to get you thinking about what the future grid will look like, nothing will. But he goes on further:
To the extent practicable, each building becomes a grid-tied microgrid, with on-site distributed generation and load control, and, in the larger buildings, storage. “Microgrid” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me what it implies is that the building is (again, to the extent practicable) self-sufficient and under a single, intelligent control system.
Of course, many buildings will not be appropriate for solar on the roof. But where natural gas is available and the need for thermal energy is relatively significant, combined-heat-and-power (CHP) systems will be utilized. CHP systems, in fact, have an advantage over solar DG in that they can be fired when needed, whereas with solar, the sun shines or it does not (hence all the interest lately in storage). A rare few buildings owners will even opt for other forms of distributed generation such as solid-oxide fuel cells or small-scale wind. Point being, there are a wide variety of DG options that will be increasingly placed on-site. But at the same time, not every building will be “net-zero energy” or such. That’s OK, but overall, there will be a lot more generation capacity at the building level.
But whether or not the facility has distributed generation, it will have a networked load monitoring and control system (NLMC) integrated into as many intelligence-enabled loads as possible within the building. What are loads? Same as always (with one big exception). Lights, air conditioning and heat, industrial equipment (in the case of commercial & industrial, or “C&I”), appliances, and entertainment/IT. For the most part that’s about it, which seems simple, but it actually hides a huge amount of variation in terms of what loads look like, how readily they can be adjusted as needed, and how they should be prioritized.
The goals of this NLMC are to 1) keep the building’s overall impact on the node as stable as possible (with few spikes and drops in net demand); and 2) enable sharing excess capacity back to the overall node when called upon to do so (often described as “automated demand response,” or ADR).
So let’s break out C&I from residential-type buildings. C&I buildings, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, but what they all share in common is that they are all operated for a purpose other than just habitation. This means there are times when you need to run a piece of equipment even if the electricity cost is high. This is simplest to think about in office buildings, where there needs to be sufficient light and comfort and plug-level capacity for me to sit here on a cloudy day and bang out this column on a computer in a well-lit room without sweating all over the keyboard. But it gets really complicated when you take that same principle to a metal foundry or a food processing plant. If the goal is to stabilize facility impact on the node, this is hard to manage in such environments, even before you put solar on the roof and have to deal with what happens when clouds pass over — much less addressing how to control an on-site battery.
Thus, what is needed in C&I is a robut NLMC that can handle a really wide variety of loads, integrate into whatever DG is on-site, even integrate into on-site storage. Able to handle not just simple HVAC controls, but a huge variety of industrial loads as well. And to smooth it all out on a real-time basis, via an ability to control loads in a buildings-owner-specified prioritization scheme. And to utilize that same prioritization scheme to feed capacity back into the node for ADR with minimal impact on facility operations. One single system that can be rolled out across just about all C&I facilities, so there’s a consistent solution for the utility to tie into. I’m biased of course, but I think this unnoticed development from Powerit Solutions is actually a really big deal in this regard.
Whether Rob is spot on in his analysis of the future grid or not, you now have a better sense of what is transpiring in the electrical grid modernization/transformation world outside of New Hampshire. The future electrical grid will not be your father’s grid. It is changing quickly despite the industry’s lack of appetite to change. Why?, technology and customer demands. Just as our lives and our businesses have experienced rapid changes due to technology, so now is the electrical industry. They aren’t too happy about in general, as it was not too long ago they were all regulated monopolies for energy supply, distribution, and transmission. This transformation into a decoupled system of electrical generation and wires means they have to learn how to operate in the new world of a modernized grid, and change is not embraced by all because it means you have to learn to operate under new models of profitability. Take a quick look at the owner of the largest power project in New Hampshire (seabrook), NextEra Energy, whose subsidiary is the regulated utility Florida Light & Power, the third largest electric utility in the United States. According to NextEra’s website: “In 2015, we generated more electricity from the wind and sun than any other company in the world“. Not all energy companies can be a NextEra, if they were we wouldn’t have much competition in the marketplace they would be so big. However, they will give you further insight into the changing world of the electrical grid.
The chart front the DOE: