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Grid Futures

Evolutionary directions for electric system architecture.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2011

look too different to the casual observer than what we have today. Existing transmission facilities aren’t likely to be torn down; they will just supply a smaller fraction of energy and capacity resources and ancillary services as electric demand grows. Similarly, legacy distribution hardware would stay in place, with new electronic gadgetry added that isn’t easily visible from the street. Underground T&D facilities, too, would be added out of sight. The most noticeable change in form would be the increasing presence of electric generation and support facilities amidst densely populated areas and on private property. From solar panels and inverters to fuel cells, microturbines, transformers, batteries and switchgear, small fences and basement doors with “Caution: High Voltage” signs would become the norm rather than the exception. 7

Another observation is that the radical T&D scenario would less readily accommodate large baseload generation with high inertia, such as coal-fired and especially nuclear plants. With decreased or even intermittent connectivity of the transmission system, must-run units become a heavy liability, and economic incentive to build them would rapidly diminish.

Quadrant IV, finally, would be an archipelago of electric islands; it could be called the “T-less” T&D system—or, suggesting the possibility that large-scale electric power transmission goes extinct, the “T-Rex.” With neither build-out nor intelligence to enhance the grid, its function would be essentially to sustain electric power delivery during a large-scale societal transition to other energy carriers. Bulk energy storage and delivery could eventually come in the form of hydrogen, produced wherever cheap energy resources are available, shipped by pipeline or high-pressure Dewar, and converted at the end-use location into heat or power. Some alternative visions involve decreasing energy consumption, which might be seen (optimistically or pessimistically) as a return to a less wasteful, less affluent or less materialistic society; the possibilities are too broad to speculate here.

It does seem safe to assume that owing to the unique physical characteristics of electric energy, most fundamentally in the context of electronics and information technology, electricity itself can’t become obsolete. The island scenario simply represents the extreme case of minimizing the geographic scale of electrical interdependence. According to the initial assumptions for this exercise, local electricity provision by microgrids would be constrained by today’s technological capabilities, which aren’t negligible. Power quality and reliability might be less effectively managed than in Quadrant III, with the result of further migration (especially of critical loads) away from the interconnected T&D system. Operational challenges and workforce demand could be shifted from T&D grid operators to local design and maintenance expertise. 8 A high premium would exist for pre-packaged, self-contained energy supply systems such as building-integrated photovoltaics or fuel cells with heat recovery.

The appearance of the “T-Rex” system would be similar to the radical one in that local, small-scale power equipment becomes a common sight. The migration of revenue base away from the interconnected system could result in a critical lack of incentive to maintain the existing infrastructure, preventing aging and unsightly equipment from being replaced—eventually becoming more eyesores than critical functioning parts of our economy. The role of