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In Quest of Power Grid Stability & Resilience

Paul Kando

Historically, utilities made energy at big generating stations, shipping it long distances over wires to local substations that converted it for use by customers. Problems with this system include “line losses,” of energy traveling along transmission lines, and reduced reliability as a local mishap can trigger outages miles away.

Lights from space
(Faked) picture of large scale power outage
photo credit: NASA (original)

Traditional utilities make money by maximizing electricity sales. They get approval from regulators to recover their costs, plus a “rate of return”, on their generating plants, poles and wires,. Energy efficiency works against maximizing kilowatt-hour sales, and customers generating power threaten the growth of the “rate base” on which the markup is charged.

It would make no sense to have competing power lines criss-crossing the landscape, so utilities are regulated monopolies. While most enterprises are about risk, utilities are about safety — of the power supply, of profits, of dividends. Their sole customer is the public-utility commission (we are but “rate payers”), and their profits are locked in by law. They build power plants, maintain the grid, and the money comes in. Their entire realm is protected.

Not surprisingly, many electric utilities — futilely — fight the spread rooftop solar panels as a threat to their comfort zone, and the source of such unwelcome challenges as intermittency of supply and the threat of customers disconnecting from the grid, should their electric bills rise too high.

In contrast, Green Mountain Power (GMP), Vermont’s largest utility, repeatedly backed legislation calling for greater integration into the power supply of “distributed generation”— small, local power sources, like rooftop solar, scattered around its territory. In 2014, also supported by GMP, Vermont nearly quadrupled the amount of “net metering” it allows. Net metering allows power generating customers to feed their excess energy onto the utility grid in exchange for a credit that reduces their electric bills.

According to CEO Mary Powell, one benefit of distributed solar generation is that it peaks just as demand does on the hottest days of summer, so utilities don’t have to buy as much wholesale power at the peak price. The future that we are working hard to accelerate is … one that focuses on locally grown energy. Having it generated where it is used. We are moving from the old bulk model to one that is much more community-driven

State of the art batteries are a linchpin in a newly envisioned future electrical energy system. They store solar-electricity for when the sun doesn’t shine, provide backup power during outages and put electricity on the grid at times of peak demand. CEO Powell speaks about changing her company’s profile from that of a traditional distribution utility to an “energy services” company. Indeed NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, a housing nonprofit, is partnering with GMP to offer low-interest loans of up to $15,000 for home energy improvements, including solar PV, for example, creating “energy homes of the future.” which can be repaid through the electric bill.

Stay tuned. There is more hopeful news on the way.