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Grid Futures

Evolutionary directions for electric system architecture.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2011

the electric grid in the 20th century as a public good and symbol of societal connectedness would fade into history like public telephones or canal barges, perhaps giving way to new, as yet unimagined infrastructures.

Scenario Signposts

What can we learn from this exercise? In general terms, the scenario analysis provides a framework for observations about current trends, as well as for discussions of relative merit, preferences, and policy implications. First of all, which scenario do we appear to be in, today? It might be possible to identify signposts that indicate which scenario is presently unfolding, or about to unfold, potentially preventing some surprise down the road. Second, does any one scenario appear most or least desirable? For professionals in the field of electric power transmission, it might be tempting to jump to the conclusion that the “T-Rex” scenario of Quadrant IV represents a tragic loss. Nevertheless, it isn’t obvious prima facie which scenario might offer the greatest social benefit, or benefit-cost ratio. An important continuation of the exercise would be to ask what each scenario might imply for society, and under what assumptions and conditions. Other questions would involve what planning or investment strategies might be most advantageous to implement in any given scenario, and by whom, along with what technologies and policies would be most desirable.

This exercise has also provided the opportunity to make more specific observations related to the different scenarios. One observation is that while the extent to which power systems will rely on transmission capacity is uncertain, distribution plays a major role in each scenario. Furthermore, technological innovation in distribution systems might proceed somewhat independently of innovation in transmission. Investment in distribution technologies and systems should therefore be a no-regrets strategy, as returns on such investment might be largely independent of which scenario becomes reality.

Perhaps the most striking observation is that the “beefy” scenario of Quadrant I is the one that in effect imposes the most definite limit on the amount of central station generation that can be utilized. This is due to the intrinsic stability limitations of synchronous AC systems, which would be overcome by solid-state switching technology in Quadrants II and III and by substitution of other energy carriers in Quadrant IV. Therefore, one take-away lesson is that “building ourselves out of” the constraints that presently appear to limit the growth of central-station generation, by simply adding more conventional transmission capacity, might not ultimately be the way to accommodate the most of such resources.

Yet there appears to be a focus in the industry today on overcoming the considerable hurdles to getting transmission projects built, and a national Interstate-highway type of grid (establishing rights of way by eminent domain) is under discussion in policy circles. These efforts can be seen as signposts that our industry currently finds itself in Quadrant I, pushing in the upward direction toward building out the capacity (rather than to the right, toward substituting technology). The scenario analysis exercise suggests it may behoove the industry to focus more attention and efforts on technological innovation, especially given the likely limitations