Getting to the Grid of the Future
The U.S. electricity grid is a dinosaur, a huge, unwieldy relic of the past. Built with an expected lifespan of 50 years, much of its infrastructure is now more than 60 years old. Its outmoded design reflects an era when power flowed only one way — from generators to consumers.
Now the grid must become more of a beehive with energy entering and exiting in countless directions, given distributed energy resources like wind and solar generation. Like a hive, it needs substantial storage capacity. And it must handle increased demand: The New England regional grid is expected to see a doubling or tripling of electricity use by 2050 as heating and transportation shift from fossil fuel reliance.
Maine is just starting to confront the magnitude of this power sector overhaul. Last fall and winter, a diverse group representing environmental, consumer and industry interests, utilities and state agencies — the Maine Utility/Regulatory Reform and Decarbonization Initiative (MURRDI) — met repeatedly to discuss how to navigate this grid transformation, eventually releasing consensus recommendations. A few are already taking form, thanks to laws passed in the recent legislative session.
A more flexible grid
The grid of the future must be nimble, partly due to the intermittent nature of renewable power. Another factor driving load flexibility is that electricity consumers can now be active producers (in the case of rooftop solar) and can adjust their electricity use in response to price signals (such as time-of-use rates).
Electricity consumers who shift their use to lower demand times can — in industry lingo — “shave the peak.” Load flexibility offers numerous benefits, Kay Aikin, co-founder of Dynamic Grid in Portland, said at a June E2 Tech Forum: It reduces infrastructure needs and costs (including energy storage capacity), and helps cut carbon emissions.
As part of a newly passed law to advance energy storage, the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has opened a docket to look into rate design issues at Maine’s two dominant utilities, CMP and Versant, exploring how time-of-use rates could offer sufficient incentive to shift consumer behavior.
The PUC also has opened a docket to investigate the design and operation of electricity distribution, trying to determine how the system can accommodate substantially more power. The commission has hired consultants and expects their reports by early next year, according to Susan Faloon, a PUC spokesperson, and then “the commission will conduct a full investigation.”
Better data sharing, utility accountability
That investigation should help identify data gaps, said Rob Wood, director of government relations and climate policy at The Nature Conservancy in Maine, which contracted with the Great Plains Institute to facilitate MURRDI. Strong consensus emerged among participants on the “importance of good data and the availability of data to those who need it.”
The group recommended that Maine utilities share interconnection data with renewable power developers so proposed generation sites can link to the grid expeditiously and cost-effectively. Interconnection represents a significant roadblock for solar expansion in Maine. A recent letter solar developers sent the PUC urges it “to take an explicit oversight and advisory role to increase accountability and ensure CMP adheres to its renewable energy interconnection commitments,” given the utility is still months from having results of transmission site studies begun early in 2020.
‘Holistic planning process’
MURRDI affirmed that the state urgently needs to undertake a “holistic grid planning process.” The Climate Action Plan made this clear last December, calling for a “comprehensive stakeholder process” to start in 2021 that would address “utility structure, load management, data and information access, grid modernization and expansion, non-wires alternatives (like battery storage), interconnection, distributed energy resources, aggregation, equitable cost allocation, rate design, integrated grid planning, regional and local electricity markets, regional collaboration, reliability and resiliency, and changes in law and regulation.”
Eight months later, the Governor’s Energy Office and PUC have yet to assemble that “Power Sector Transformation Group.” Asked when that might happen, Anthony Ronzio, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, indicated “a date is not certain, but we are working toward the recommendation in the plan.”
Another grid stakeholder group will be formed in coming weeks, he noted, in response to LD 936. That group must develop recommendations on optimal levels of distributed (or decentralized) generation and report back to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2022 on “how the state should undertake the adoption and implementation of a forward-looking, holistic grid planning process.”
Whether these two efforts coordinate remains to be seen, but according to MURRDI participant Jeff Marks, Maine director for the nonprofit Acadia Center, “they need to get started quickly and they need to work together.”
There’s widespread acknowledgment, he added, that “if we’re going to get to the scale of decarbonization we need to, we’re going to have to do planning in a completely different way than we do now.” A growing number of people, Marks included, are convinced that means separating grid planning functions from utility ownership. Who takes over that planning role is “still an open question,” he added, but “there’s going to have to be a discussion about utility structure going forward.”
Investing resources, inviting more people
Grid expansion and reinvention pose a daunting challenge for Maine, requiring vast technological transformation without loss of short-term grid functioning. It also requires an unprecedented capital investment on the order of $60 billion, Richard Silkman, former State Planning Office director, has estimated.
For those costs to be distributed equitably, Maine will need to have more voices engaged in grid planning than have traditionally participated. Equity concerns, environmental justice and climate resilience must be central to shaping that plan.
The PUC has “an outsized impact on people’s lives,” Marks noted, but offers limited opportunities for public input – operating in an arcane world of filings, dockets and lobbyist-laden hearings. In the MURRDI process, Wood saw “eagerness from a lot of stakeholders to see more public engagement at the PUC.” That change in culture will be especially important if the PUC takes on new roles, such as overseeing long-term grid planning or hosting grid interconnection information.
Surveying all the grid challenges ahead brings to mind humorist Marshall Dodge’s line that you “can’t get theyuh from heuh.” But the hard truth is, we have to — and soon.
© Marina Schauffler, 2021. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request