We recently witnessed an international call to arms conveyed by young people from multiple countries for greater action to reduce climate change. The reality is, more than ever before in our history, man is attempting to minimize the impact of his actions on the environment. Many customers judge companies today by their degree of social and environmental responsibility. Some companies may be taking on sustainability initiatives for this reason alone, but far more see the intelligent use of resources as a bottom line dollars and cents issue as well.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s when the environmental movement blossomed in the United States, those of us working on environmental issues for our companies thought, "Now is a good time for eco-minded and energy-conscious initiatives because there are a host of different approaches our utilities and energy consumers can take to reduce environmental impact.” During the ensuing years, in addition to achieving dramatic emission reductions of numerous priority pollutants, we trail-blazed many energy saving and emission reducing solutions ranging from demand side management (DSM) and energy efficiency programs to peak-shaving, cogeneration, wholesale renewable energy plants, the promotion of electric vehicles (EVs), and more.
The success of all these programs is evidenced by the dramatic reduction in emissions of priority pollutants from electric utilities and other sources. This fact is sadly overlooked by the media and many of the folks active in environmental movements today. They argue man is still contributing to climate change and have targeted utilities and other major users of fossil fuels to deliver emission reductions. While some may argue that man’s contribution toward climate change is still uncertain, we have embarked on a new age of technological advancements in the power sector that will further reduce the industry’s emissions footprint.
The power industry has embraced renewable energy technology. Cost reductions and technology improvements have helped simplify grid integration, and improved performance and reliability. In the correct setting, the long-term levelized costs for bulk renewable projects are lower than those for fossil fuel projects. With the assistance of real-time meteorological data, utilities and system grid operators are learning to compensate for the intermittency effects of renewable resources. The addition of bulk energy storage and artificial intelligence (AI) systems designed to optimize energy storage and use will enhance the power industry’s ability to further reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
Smart grid technology has fundamentally changed the operation of our nation's power system. Utilities have spent billions of dollars over the last 10 years, modernizing their electric systems and many of the upgrades directly or indirectly affect the businesses' net environmental impacts. For example, since system losses are generally highest at the electric distribution level, a beneficial modernization investment chosen by many utilities is an advanced distribution management system (ADMS). This technology can be configured to provide automated fault location, isolation, and service restoration; conservation voltage reduction; peak demand management; and volt/volt-ampere reactive (volt/VAR) optimization. ADMSs not only contribute to reliability and resiliency, but also to several aspects of efficiency and conservation, which translate directly to reduced environmental impact.
Distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) are increasingly being considered to optimize system integration as the appetite for grid-connected renewable and distributed energy resources (DERs) increases and demand grows for greater adaptability to current and future consumer-oriented applications. The proper integration and deployment of DERs can reduce their operational environmental impacts, defer system capacity upgrades, optimize distribution operations, expand demand response capabilities, and improve system resiliency.
The message to young conservation and climate action advocates from the power industry in the 21st century should be, "Stay tuned because we’re only getting started." As utilities gain experience with digital technology, they are learning how newly available data streams, machine learning, and AI can perform powerful tasks, including optimizing electric systems and DER dispatch using edge analytics based on selected parameters such as cost, resource use, or carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; using AI to create data-driven models to achieve maximum efficiency during the partial load operation of formerly base loaded fossil fuel boilers; optimizing the location and integration of new DERS and microgrids on electric systems based on real-time and forecast data; optimizing the use of virtual power plants (VPPs) made up of aggregated resources including demand response, renewable and energy storage systems; and monitoring phasor measurement unit (PMU) data on power systems for asset health monitoring, enhanced reliability, efficiency, and safety.
Climate action advocates question why utilities are not more vocal regarding their level of commitment to climate action. Some are. For example, Con Edison recently issued a press release advocating for Climate Week action year round. For its part, Con Ed is engaged in a number of environmentally conscious programs which other utilities are also offering, including: increasing natural gas energy efficiency; providing smart meters to customers; investing in a more resilient grid; building company owned community solar programs; and promoting EVs. Other utilities are making commitments to reduce the use of coal as a fuel or even commit to a net-zero carbon emissions goal, as DTE Energy has done.
From ongoing emissions reduction programs to grid modernization and new integration/management technology deployment, the power sector has heeded the call of investors, regulators, and customers who want their companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve efficiency, and increase conservation. At the same time, utilities are taking steps to build resilience against the negative effects of a changing climate, which is inevitable based on five billion years of history. No doubt issues remain regarding what constitutes sustainability and how best to achieve it. Chief among those issues is whether a net-zero carbon future is necessary and achievable. It’s worth noting that since 1990, greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity and industrial sectors have declined, while emissions from the transportation and residential sectors have increased. While further progress is possible all around, it may be time to give the electricity sector some recognition for the strides it has made to date.