SACRAMENTO, Calif. — “The grid” is one of those catch-all terms that holds different connotations for different groups. Generally speaking, it refers to the power structure network of users and suppliers, and can be thought of in terms of the power infrastructure at the city, state and national level. To compensate for the ever-increasing demand on this steadily aging infrastructure, regulators and tech companies are coming together to see what can be done.
During a panel discussion on the ways technology can support an evolving grid at the Advanced Energy Economy’s Pathway to 2050 event on June 21, state Sen. Henry Stern called on the wisdom of the regulators and tech folks pushing the industry forward. Due to technological advances and the growth of California’s population, energy utilities are under increasing demand to make energy available at all times. This demand comes in waves throughout the day, often peaking for Californians in the afternoon and evening.
People have traditionally wanted two things when it comes to power, Stern said — for it to be reliable and cheap.
“It is hard to humanize what happens behind a light switch,” he said. However, when the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility began to leak, and “when kids start getting sick… or pets die, you wake up," he added. "We start thinking about what happens behind that switch.”
In the midst of an “interesting moment in energy policy,” it is hard to predict how the technology will grow and what market forces will look like. But decisions can be made about what we do know about the future — and that's utilizing less fossil fuels and making distributed power grids more commonplace.
Part of the shift needs to be about how we think about energy, said Matt Duesterberg, co-founder and CEO of energy startup OhmConnect.
“We traditionally think about energy in terms of a resource,” he said. “We probably need to start looking at this from a product-type perspective.”
That includes looking at it in terms of data, of real-time capacity. “We have no idea what the grid will look like in 2050,” he added, noting that it is hard to guide how the grid will appropriate power.
Duesterberg gave an example of current efforts to build out electric vehicle charging stations in business parks and other public locations. This approach relies on the assumption that people will want to charge their vehicles away from home, he explained. But as electric vehicle batteries become more powerful and efficient, he cautioned that drivers may just charge them at home periodically. This model also does not take into account the possibility that autonomous ride-sharing fleets could threaten the model of personal vehicle ownership.
Expanding on this idea, Manal Yamout, vice president of policy for Advanced Microgrid Solutions, discussed harnessing power that grid utilities possess and how it can be transformed into value for consumers. “Folks think that battery storage is the issue. It's not,” she said, noting that batteries are just “big dumb boxes.” It's the software behind the batteries that can generate more value.
Some of the largest value lies in the possibility of aggregating battery storage units to store energy during off-peak hours — energy that can then be redistributed to public utilities for use during times of high demand. This market is “evolving very quickly,” she said, adding that regulators need to work to help enable it, not restrict it.
She also shook off the notion that the state has to choose between clean energy and jobs. The idea that jobs and environment friendly energy are at odds with one another is disproven by the amount of capital and investment in broader market trends.
“There is no silver bullet in terms of a future technology, at least I don't think there will be,” said Duesterberg. But getting to energy efficiency is all about the small gains that contribute to larger, more challenging goals. While getting to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 is an ambitious goal codified by California Gov. Jerry Brown, he said we all want that to increase to 100 percent — and its going to take a lot of work.
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.