Veteran Leaders on Electric Trends: Ron Melton


Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Fortnightly Magazine - June 15 2020

For this panel, we have two association executives, two policymakers, and a leader at a DOE National Laboratory All have long histories in the energy sector and national perspectives. Our objectives were to elicit potentially competing perspectives on what the future of the electric industry may be, and for those responses to stimulate readers to develop their own perspectives and initiate similar discussions within their own organizations.


PUF: In the next five to ten years, what technological advancement will most impact the electric industry? Why? How?

Ron Melton: Local and community generation combined with inexpensive storage will change the very nature of the electric power system. When we reach a point that we can think of storage as ubiquitous - as much as we like, wherever we like it - the way we control and coordinate the balance of the electric power system changes dramatically with the distribution system now the dominant element, and automated distributed control and coordination technologies widely deployed enabling what will amount to programmable net load shapes feeder by feeder. 

This in turn dramatically changes the role of the bulk power system, the bulk power system market structures, and overall bulk power system operations to be truly supply following with significant supply being distributed.

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PUF: During the pandemic, many people worked from home. Will this be a trend in the industry? If, yes, what are its implications?

Ron Melton: Given our experience with telework, yes there will be an impact. For utilities, not clear. 

Many business functions can be done via telework. Operations are another matter. Over the long term there is also a social dimension that can't be ignored. People are by their nature social creatures. This social dimension will drive the long term viability of telework. 

Implications for the industry of telework broadly are changing load patterns between commercial and residential. Possibly different temporal load shapes for loads that were driven by standard workdays. The workday may become elongated in time when averaged over lots of people.

PUF: What will determine the future of renewable energy - Economics? Public opinion? Regulatory environment? Technological advances? Transmission development? Other?

Ron Melton: My guess is economics will be the long term determinant followed by decarbonization related to climate change mitigation, which could be economic too, but is on a long time frame that we typically refuse to deal with.

PUF: Will the pandemic's impact lead to more distributed generation and/or better utility-customer and customer-customer interactions? If yes, how?

Ron Melton: I have trouble seeing a linkage between the pandemic and these elements of the electric power industry. If there were wide scale reliability problems that were traced to personnel shortages due to the pandemic that might be another DER growth driver. But I haven't seen anything to date that suggests that will happen.

PUF: The current federal Administration has relaxed regulatory and environmental rules regarding fossil fuel emissions. Will electric utilities change their strategic and operational plans in response? Please explain.

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Ron Melton: Some may, but those taking a more strategic view should not for at least two reasons. First, their customers in most of the country still expect a more environmentally friendly approach and also like the economics of falling costs of PV and storage. That combination will be important to many utilities. 

Second, the current relaxation is not likely to continue. If the administration changes in this year's election, then there isn't time to adjust. Even if the current administration lasts another four years, the risk of taking a different track now and having to reinvest in response to more stringent environmental controls in five years seems to be a bad trade off. 

Utilities will largely stay the course. Another factor, of course, is state level RPS factors that also have to be considered and pull away from taking advantage of the relaxed environmental rules.

Our Panel of Veteran Leaders on Electric Trends:

  • Paula Glover, CEO, American Association of Blacks in Energy
  • Pat Wood, Former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Public Utility Commission of Texas
  • Miles Keogh, Executive director, National Association of Clean Air Agencies (and former director of the NARUC Research Lab)
  • Ron Melton, of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Jeff Morris, of Schneider Electric (former Washington State Representative)