What is old and new again? Well, it certainly isn’t me. However, I could write about distribution automation, building energy management systems and automated meter reading existing long before the smart grid moniker was coined. I could also mention that backup generation at hospitals and data centers allowed those customers to “island” their systems during emergencies long before it was discovered that they were microgrids. These might be topics for another time when I feel up to separating what is actually new from the hype.
The old I wish to discuss is electric system management. Utilities have been performing this basic yet all-encompassing function ever since the first two generators were electrically tied together. Over time, as generators were added and transmission and distribution systems grew, it was recognized that a properly managed electric power system could provide increased economy, higher levels of reliability, a diverse energy portfolio, load diversity and risk mitigation.
In North America today, this management of the wires system is performed 24/7 by hundreds of thousands of dedicated men and women involved in essential control, operations, maintenance and construction activities. This function is performed so brilliantly that the effort mostly goes unnoticed and unappreciated. We in the industry probably hurt our cause when we describe this near-Herculean effort as “just keeping the lights on.” We know what that entails, but few outside the industry have any clue.
Yet it is this electric system management function that is so critical today and will become more critical in the future. Not only will this function survive current threats and challenges, but it will thrive because of them. Why is this? It is because developed nations increasingly want their electricity sans carbon and that will require higher levels of wind and solar generation. These variable resources will require a more robust electrical energy system in order to serve as viable power system resources. Clear as mud? Perhaps a real-world example would illustrate.
Although a long way from completion, PacifiCorp’s Energy Gateway Transmission project has “utility of the future” stamped all over it. Envisioned to address growing electrical needs and reliability concerns, the project also positions PacifiCorp to meet future Environmental Protection Agency carbon-reduction goals. The Gateway’s triangular shape spans several Western states, and it is well positioned to utilize renewable energy resources in the future.
The project will allow access to high-yield solar and wind resources. These resources offer more energy per dollar invested. Additionally, the project footprint overlays promising geothermal resource areas that can provide renewable energy without the variability. The important aspect of all this is that it will take a transmission network to make these diverse and yet remote resources available to PacifiCorp’s customers. American Wind Energy Association’s Head of Research Michael Goggin recognized this fact in a recent Utility Dive article when he stated, “One of the best ways to integrate renewables is to do it over a large area with transmission.”
Implicit in Goggin’s statement are some underlying characteristics of wind and solar energy resources. Just as weather varies from region to region, so does solar and wind potential. For example, it is obvious that the solar potential in the desert Southwest is far greater than the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. It is also readily apparent that the wind potential in many Great Plains states far exceeds other locations. It will take sophisticated transmission networks to blend these disparate resources with different production profiles into an economical energy portfolio. PacifiCorp’s blueprint for its Energy Gateway is well on the way to providing just such a network.
What about the threat of distributed solar? This threat remains a real concern, particularly where net metering policies allow distributed solar producers to use the wires networks to transport energy without compensating the service provider. Such policies also shield distributed solar producers from the variable nature of energy markets. In many areas, energy demand in the spring is substantially lower than in the summer. As such, energy prices are typically lower in those months. As indicated by the forecasted CAISO “duck curves,” increased solar penetration will intensify this situation on sunny spring days, creating periods of high supply and low demand. Net metering provides these producers with the same price for excess energy regardless of supply and demand economics. These policies, which may have had some justification in the nascent days of the distributed solar industry, will only result in distorted market conditions and under-recovered wires costs if allowed to continue.
If distributed solar producers are placed on the same market footing as their utility-scale solar cousins, then the transmission and distribution system can serve both. Sure a more sophisticated control system and storage will be needed, but in the end, it will still be about economically and reliably hauling energy from producers to customers.