Utilities and environmental groups are coming together to help modernize the transmission system. It's an arduous job that requires conciliation and patience.
Together, they seek to improve the grid's capabilities to allow it to carry more green electrons as well as provide customers with the information they need to make better energy choices.
With Congress now considering national renewable energy mandates and at least half the states with such laws on their books, electric companies must have a way to deliver the expected use of those renewables.
Environmental laws are also anticipated to get tougher. If carbon limits are set, for example, it would necessitate more energy conservation and an even greater percentage of renewable energy development.
An intelligent utility can send notification of the most efficient generation to dispatch as well as issue warnings to grid operators that power flows be re-directed to avert congestion. And they can tell consumers to curb power usage because prices are about to skyrocket.
"This is a great first step toward transforming our entire energy system to be more secure and reliable, and to deliver cleaner and cheaper electricity to American homes and businesses," said Mark Brownstein, an energy director at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). "Done right, a new energy grid can enable broad deployment of renewable energy sources like solar and wind and empower consumers to make more informed decisions about their real-time energy use, paving the way for energy efficiency and off-peak power cost savings."
The EDF is partnering with other stakeholders in the Pecan Street Project in Austin, Texas, a comprehensive smart grid enterprise. Down the road, with findings in hand, the parties in this project will suggest regulatory reforms and a business model to allow those new technologies to flourish.
Once proven, momentum will build. According to Pike Research, utilities could invest as much as $21 billion in grid modernization over the next five years. Right now, about 5 percent of the 145 million existing meters are "smart." But power companies are expecting that share to increase by a third over the next several years as 52 million modern meters are rolled out, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report.
If the smart grid were truly a national program, then down the line it could cut peak energy usage by 10 percent, according to The Brattle Group. That, in turn, would also take a bite out of overall emissions and enable utilities to avoid some capital expenditures.
Without a doubt, market acceptance has been slow. Industrial and commercial concerns have more to gain than homeowners, who have less financial incentive to monitor their daily energy consumption. Utilities, though, want to maximize the efficiency of their grids so as to avoid any outages - and the smart grid can do just that. Their job now is to convince regulators to permit them to pass the costs through to ratepayers.
While electric companies are more focused on increasing capacity, environmental interests are more concerned with making room for green energy, particularly as utilities grow more comfortable with such alternatives. Regardless of motivation, the two have found common cause.
The Sierra Club, for instance, has said that the development of the smart grid is a national priority. But it also realizes that it must match its words with actions: Constructing an intelligent utility must be viewed in the context of infrastructure expansion.
To that end, the organization contends that California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative and the Western Governors Association's Western Renewable Energy Zone are combining the two concepts. Both are working with all stakeholders to avoid potential snafus while also incorporating "renewable energy zones."
Such planning seeks to put projects in places that are rich in sustainable resources and where wildlife disturbances can be kept to a minimum. Resistance remains, although the Sierra Club has said that it eases if the lines are designated to move wind or solar power.
"Business-as-usual transmission planning has been fraught with conflict, delays and inefficiencies," said Carl Zichella, director of Western Renewable Programs for the Sierra Club, who testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources. "Involving key stakeholders early on in transmission planning encourages the making of better decisions that can be more easily accepted by the public, shortening approval timelines and initiating project construction more rapidly."
It's about building out the intelligent utility, whether it is reserving space for sustainable fuel sources or adding software to encourage energy conservation. It's the one effort whereby utilities and environmentalists share a mutual interest. But it's one effort that will nevertheless take time and money to realize.
This article by Ken Silverstein, editor-in-chief of EnergyBiz Insider, originally appeared in the current issue of Intelligent Utility magazine. Phil Carson's column returns on May 12.