A new report from scientists at MIT is featured this week on NPR, highlighting the importance of updating the electric grid for integrating renewables and other issues for the future of energy use. While the grid is already a complex system, adding the variable supply of renewable energy will make it an even more interesting balancing act, as backup sources of energy such as natural gas plants will need to become even more flexible. Utilities will need to communicate the challenges and opportunities of updating the grid to their customers.
“Every day, with the flick of a switch, millions of Americans tap into the electricity grid,” the article explains. “It’s a web of power stations, transformers and transmission lines that span the continent, distributing electricity like veins and arteries distribute blood. Electricity has to keep flowing all the time. Grid operators constantly match what power plants are producing with what people and their TVs, microwaves and air conditioners need. It’s the world’s biggest balancing act.”
Constant sources of energy such as coal clearly make it easier to perform this balancing act, reducing uncertainty on at least one side of the equation, while adding in more variable supplies such as renewables and natural gas plants creates greater complexity. In addition to variability of use, another important concern for natural gas is price, as plants that only run during cloudy or calm days will not be able to make enough profits to justify their existence.
The potential cost of not updating the grid gets higher every year, as described in another article on GreenTech Media called The Price of Doing Nothing for Smart Grid. “Prices do rise over time, and doing nothing only makes it worse… the world will see electricity prices rise 400 percent by 2050 if nothing is done to bring power grids up to speed. But here’s the rub: doing something doesn’t actually halt price increases, it only slows them down to merely rising 50 percent over that time.”
“Smart grid also helps in maintaining grid reliability, replacing old infrastructure, and managing renewable energy on a massive scale. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) predicted last summer that smart grid investment of $338 billion to $476 billion could yield $2 trillion in benefits by 2030.”
“Eventually, customers with energy management tech that works, whether connected to a smart meter, broadband or some other link to the utility, will start comparing their bills to neighbors who’ve done nothing to prepare for the smart grid, and will start noticing a difference.”
Utilities should act now to explain the benefits of updating the grid to their customers, getting ahead of the curve on helping to manage costs, maintain reliability, and integrate renewables.