Every electrical design engineer worth his salt knows Ohm’s law, Faraday’s law and Gauss’ law as well as how to apply them. We know how to design transmission and distribution infrastructure blindfolded. Moreover, with a little help from our mechanical and nuclear engineering associates, we can design ever more efficient conventional and renewable power plants. What we don’t know, and possibly no one knows, is the ideal mix of conventional and renewable resources, the correct fossil fuel and nuclear mix, the optimal remote and centrally located generation mix and the best transmission and distribution infrastructure combination.
You might be thinking my lead-in question has no answer. Technically, you might be right on that point, but a good approximation for the formula just might be something as simple as achieving a happy medium. There is something to be said about a happy medium. First off, have you ever heard of an unhappy medium? There is comfort in knowing one has achieved a balance. This is because it is harder to be totally off and easier to pivot and head in another direction, if needed, when the starting point is near the middle.
I started thinking about our electric infrastructure balance when I read an analysis performed by researchers in Germany studying the implications associated with a proposal to eliminate all of Germany’s gasoline vehicles by 2030. While the U.S.’s electric vehicle penetration is much lower than in most European countries, many advocates here think going electric is the right move. This observation is supported by regular announcements from utilities who are investing in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The study of the German proposal revealed that emissions would actually be higher with an all electric transportation fleet. Somewhat surprisingly, the reason was the autos that would be eliminated have lower emissions than the fossil-fueled power plants that would need to run more to provide charging for the electric replacement vehicles. Compounding the situation, the German Administration has indicated it wants to slow renewables growth because it is getting too much intermittent generation on the grid and the country has decided to eliminate nuclear generation.
The lesson here may be that there are often unforeseen consequences associated with significant infrastructure shifts. An over-reliance on intermittent renewables may increase system volatility; elimination of normally base-loaded, zero-carbon emission power sources causes a loss of valuable flexibility in the generation mix; and migration to an all-electric transportation fleet may require overcompensation somewhere else.
Could the U.S. also be slowly distorting its energy infrastructure in unhelpful ways? Over the last decade we have seen a record number of baseload coal and nuclear plants announce early retirement. We are increasing our reliance on natural gas and renewables. We are now seeing utilities selling their generation fleets to reduce their exposure to competitive risk, while increasing other risks like supply availability and addressing asset write-downs. If we replace the old generation assets with more distributed energy resources, will we actually be increasing emissions in the long term similar to Germany’s well-meaning electric vehicle program? On the transmission and distribution side, will over-reliance on renewables and distributed energy resources (DERs) lead utility commissions to conclude some transmission or distribution assets are no longer used and useful? Such a conclusion could result in the same stranded asset market risks on the T&D side that utilities seek to avoid by selling their generation assets.
Oh, for the good old days when everything was less complicated. If there is one thing we should have learned in the 135 years since electricity became a business, it is that technology and demand evolve in often unanticipated ways and flexibility is key. If someone comes along and tells you: The future is renewables or nuclear or gas or DERs or is moving in any one focused direction, the one thing you should know for sure is that they are wrong. No one has that magic formula that will derive the single optimal solution, so the best move might be to shoot for that happy medium. And while a formula would be great for achieving a happy medium, it’s possible to get there without one.