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Gridlock in 2030?

Policy priorities for managing T&D evolution.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2012

support and a variety of technological and economic changes will alter both the demand for and supply of electricity in challenging ways. Technologies exist that can meet these challenges effectively, but only if a number of regulatory policies are changed, necessary research and development is performed, and important data are compiled and shared. If these steps aren’t taken—and they seem far from inevitable—it might well be difficult to maintain both reliability and rates at acceptable levels.

An important challenge facing the electric power sector not discussed further in this article is the aging of its technical workforce, a problem made more serious by the decline in university power engineering programs. This problem is widely acknowledged; significant efforts are underway to deal with it; and we have no related recommendations to offer.

While we believe information technology has much to offer the grid, we avoid reliance on the term “smart grid” here and in our study’s report both because it means different things to different people and because increasing the grid’s intelligence is only one possible means to ends that include the reliable and economical provision of electricity. Moreover, while some smart grid technologies do make it possible for residential customers to be more active participants in electricity markets, few seem eager to devote more attention to a product that accounts for only a few percent of their monthly budgets. And, at the end of the day, we have seen no “killer electricity apps” on the horizon. If all goes well, turning on a lamp in 2030 will have the exact same effect it does today—and will require no more thought.

Grid-Scale Variable Resources

Current federal and state policies are tilting the playing field sharply in favor of renewable generation, and such support seems almost certain to continue. Thus wind and solar generation are almost certain to become more important by 2030—though perhaps not as important in many U.S. regions as they already are in some E.U. countries.

Two well-known features of these technologies pose potential problems for the electric grid. First, the output of wind and solar generators varies considerably over time and is imperfectly predictable. For this reason, they and some other technologies are labeled “variable energy resources,” or VERs. At high levels of VER penetration, demand minus VER generation—that is, the net load that must be met by other generators—becomes noticeably more variable and difficult to predict. To maintain reliability despite this variability, the system and its operation must be modified at some cost. Few incentives exist today in organized markets for investments that add generation flexibility or for operating in a flexible manner, for instance, even though power system flexibility will become more important as the penetration of VERs increases. Full or virtual consolidation of small balancing areas would facilitate VER integration, as would requiring new VER generators to meet performance specifications appropriate for operation in the high-VER future they likely will encounter.

Second, many of the most promising sites for wind and solar generators are distant from major load centers. Exploiting these sites will require building relatively more