The Smart Grid – When Is it Smart? Part 3

The previous blog talked about Smart Grid Rule #2:  You know you have a Smart Grid when the transmission of your electricity is thoroughly monitored by PMUs to deliver critical situational awareness and intelligent management of the grid to improve its operations and efficiency, and you’ll enjoy a reduction in brownouts and blackouts.  

Now let’s consider the thorniest problem about transmission, and no, it is not technology.  It is people.  We need to build more transmission lines to transport power that is remotely generated back to the load centers – the towns and cities, industrial facilities, and businesses that would consume that electricity.   To do that, we must overcome three powerful forces:  NIMBY, BANANA, and NOPE.  NIMBY means Not In My Back Yard.  BANANA means Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.  NOPE means Not On Planet Earth.  And seriously, these are real threats to getting things done, and especially getting things done quickly enough to close the gaps between current electricity production and projected electricity use. 

The absolutely most superb location for wind in the continental United States is the area off the northern coast of California up into southern Oregon.  The first proposed transmission line planned to run electricity produced in that region down to the heavily populated Bay Area was recently withdrawn.  Perhaps the proposal was flawed, perhaps the locals did not believe that they received adequate compensation for towers marching across the landscape, or they received miniscule benefits from it.  However, its notable failure is not a good sign.  Given the projections about where utility-scale renewable energy production can occur, we have a forced choice of either building high-voltage transmission lines or ramping up investments to improve technologies for distributed generation at the rooftop and backyard levels.  People will be receptive to personal benefits – whether these are lower energy bills, new sources of revenue from power generation, or incentives to reduce demand. 

Building codes, zoning restrictions, and other local ordinances must be modified to allow for a sensible proliferation of distributed generation using standards-based solar and wind sources, and I have no doubt that these regulations will be modified quickly if people (especially voters) perceive that they can make some money selling renewable energy back to a utility.  Even NIMBY, BANANA, and NOPE attitudes will rapidly adjust. 

Distributed generation of renewables, aside from geothermal, presents a different set of challenges for utilities or the aggregators who will manage hundreds or thousands of intermittent generation points on rooftops and in back yards.  These challenges are technological and regulatory rather than social, and thus are easier to address.  Some of the challenges involve energy storage technologies.  A distributed generation world – especially one that is built on renewable energy sources – will need cheap, safe, and reliable energy storage with a small footprint. 

Regulatory agencies must consider how to treat energy storage.  Is it a generation asset?  A transmission or distribution asset?  Or is it in a class by itself?  I like the idea of storage being an energy producer – even if the energy I “produce” is simply stored energy that I downloaded during the evening from the grid into my home battery, and then uploaded (at a profit) back to the grid during peak demand hours.  If I didn’t provide the electricity, someone somewhere would have to generate it, so stored energy is a form of just-in-time generation.   

Building extensive new high-voltage transmission lines may simply generate more heat than light in most regions of the country and consume valuable time and resources that could be spent on shifting investment from remote transmission assets to local distribution asset upgrades.  Energy storage and distributed generation will dramatically alter people’s relationship with electricity – transitioning it from a commodity to a resource of shifting value based on time of day.   

Smart Grid Rule #3:  You know you have a Smart Grid when the transmission and distribution portions of the grid are optimized for distributed energy generation/storage.