By Lindsay Drogin
It is said while Alexander Bell would find modern cellular communications technology incomprehensible, Thomas Edison would easily understand today’s electric grid where electricity is pushed one way from the generators to the end users. The system of large centralized electric generation units transferring electricity to high voltage alternating current bulk transmission lines that step down to lower voltages for use in residences / commercial / governmental / industrial enterprises distributed by utilities granted monopolistic operating rights in designated territories has not materially changed since Edison’s time.
At last, this model of electric generation, transmission and distribution is being disrupted.
Imagine the metaphor of a regular nine inning baseball game. The end game is a two way electric grid where prosumers (not consumers) can either be users or generators of electricity. Where electric generation is very widely distributed and comes from mainly renewable sources assisted by sophisticated storage technology and super smart inverters. Where a huge number of interconnected microgrids operate either independently or are connected to a larger grid that is coordinated by the utility of the future aided by critically important secure software incorporating block chain programming elements.
So what inning are we in today given the above end game?
According to Ahmed Mousa, Manager-Utility of the Future at PSE&G who provided input for this article, we are currently in the third inning. More coordination and robust planning by regulatory bodies, utilities, innovative companies, academics, consultants, etc, will be required to get us to mid game. Not only is green, renewable energy important, but so is the reliability of the overall system to avoid blackouts and other disruptions. Decisions about whether to encourage nuclear or natural gas fired base load electrical generation to ensure proper electrical system reliability, integrity and stability amidst greater weather variability will also have to take into account goals for renewable energy standards.
Tom Freund, founder of DigySol – a startup company for communications software between prosumers and the power grid, notes that we haven’t even begun defining the necessary types of regulations that will govern how microgrids can join a shared network and interact with local communities. Tom sees us in the top of the third inning of the transformation, noting three signs. First, starting in 2019, renewables have at certain periods overtaken coal in the overall percent of US electric generation. Second, there is acceleration of energy storage deployment of not only batteries but also hydrogen based technologies of the kind developed by Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems in Utah. Third, Puerto Rico is reconstituting its power grid that was devastated by Hurricane Maria with the deployment of eight microgrids for increased resiliency to more variable weather conditions induced by climate change.
Conclusion – we are in the third inning of the transformation of electric power to a more carbon neutral grid. How our electric grid functions and our ability to address climate change are inseparably interrelated. More evidence from the world of baseball: in April 2019, the NY Yankees signed the Paris Accords to fight climate change.