The Smart Grid has to accomplish two objectives from an infrastructure perspective to achieve grid modernization. It has to upgrade the 20th century electrical grid infrastructure to the 21st century, and meld it with a modern, robust, and secure communications network infrastructure. The Smart Grid enables different alternatives in terms of configurations and business models to the traditional supply chain of generation/transmission/distribution of electricity.
One of those alternative supply chain configurations is the concept of distributed energy resources or DER. DER encompasses power generation and energy storage. It also includes negawatt generation – the reduction of predictable amounts of energy consumption during specific timeframes known as demand response (DR) events. DER is now evolving into a strategy for grid and community resiliency. As weather patterns include more summer derechos and polar vortexes, resiliency is an objective of planning sessions at kitchen tables, in corporate boardrooms, and between elected officials’ offices. But will resiliency plans consider all the ramifications – especially geopolitical influences – involved in different energy sources and their infrastructure needs?
For instance, GE recently released a white paper on Distributed Power. Their focus on power generation excludes energy storage and renewable energy sources. It makes sense, because GE is very interested in selling its natural gas generation products for distributed deployments as a resiliency play. But the white paper fails to give proper consideration to areas that are not served by existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure. It mentions “virtual pipelines” that can move natural gas to locations not served by gas pipelines. Virtual pipelines are roads, bridges, and tunnels. Most Americans would agree that our overall road infrastructure isn’t in great shape, and often suffers from traffic congestion and also fails in catastrophic weather scenarios. GE’s distributed power concept may be an interesting possibility for communities and corporations already served by a decent pipeline infrastructure to improve operational resiliency, but will taxpayers responsible for the upkeep and safe utilization of their roadways be happy in seeing them converted into virtual pipelines?
DER can leverage renewable sources of energy. Today, solar is proving to be an effective energy source that can deliver some, if not all of a residential home’s needs. Solar coupled with energy storage holds significant promise to deliver power even when transmission and distribution infrastructure fails. But there’s another aspect of domestic renewable sources of energy that makes it very attractive for resiliency planning.
The clear lack of geopolitical forces makes renewable energy sources attractive. Have you noticed that every report about possible political responses to the situation in the Ukraine eventually mentions the natural gas pipelines heading from Russia to Europe? European countries depend on this natural gas for 25% of their supply. Russia has a weapon of economic warfare – just the threat of gas supply disruptions is sufficient to secure the requisite responses, or lack of them. The USA may promise increased exports of natural gas to Europe or other regions to counteract another cutoff as Russia has done twice before. Natural gas is transportable and exportable via real or virtual pipelines. That means it has a price volatility that will never be experienced by solar or wind energy producers. In other words, natural gas may be extracted in the USA. That doesn’t guarantee that it will be burned in the USA – it will go to the highest bidder.
Resiliency planners need to consider a broad range of “what if “ scenarios to develop adequate actions and responses that reduce or eliminate downtime of critical operations. The assurance of supplies of natural gas to critical sites must be considered in private, civic, and corporate resiliency strategies. Relying on energy sources that have infrastructure weaknesses plus suffer the impacts of geopolitical forces isn’t a good short or long term strategy. The future still lies in energy sources that have the least price volatility and require the least transport infrastructure. DER with renewable sources of energy delivers on those requirements.