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“51 Billion to Zero”

Charles Bayless's picture
Retired CEO Tucson Electric Power

Mr. Bayless is a retired Utility Executive and a lecturer on Energy Policy, Climate Change and Ocean Acidification. Until June 30, 2008 Mr. Bayless was President and Provost of the West Virginia...

  • Member since 2001
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  • Jul 9, 2021

By Andy Bennett, CEO of mPrest, Inc. & Charles E. Bayless, Board Member at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority

Bill Gates opens his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” with this provocative thought: The world is emitting 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually; to avoid a climate disaster, we need to reduce that to zero.  To get there, changes in the electricity sector will undoubtedly need to occur – and occur rapidly – to avoid catastrophic climate change in the next decades.

Fossil fuels account for approximately 60% of electricity generation in North America, according to the U.S. Energy Information Adminstration.  In their “Statistical Review of World Energy 2020” report, BP says that 84% of global energy consumption was comprised of coal, oil, and natural gas generation. CO2 emissions from energy production declined slightly to 31.5 gigatons in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the International Energy Agency. But in 2018, they accounted for about 27% of global CO2 emissions, per the Environmental Protection Agency. This is only slightly less than emissions caused by the second-largest source of greenhouse gas, transportation.  Concerns about climate change, the falling prices of wind and solar generation and the declining costs and greater capacities of batteries, have all driven rapid growth in grid-connected renewable energy resource installations.  We expect this growth in smaller, renewable energy resources to continue, partially displacing large, centralized generation centers to meet electricity supply requirements.

Currently, there are more than one million electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads in the U.S., with estimates that there will be almost 20 million more by 2030, representing 90% of all vehicles sold by 2040. These vehicles can act as storage or a load, enabling a higher degree of load shaping and additional energy supply during critical peak periods.  The move from natural gas to electricity for heating water and homes also creates a potential resource pool that can be utilized to shape demand, reducing electricity production during peak periods while not affecting customers’ comfort levels at home.

While the move to vast amounts of “greener” energy is good news, there are many additional political, economic, social, and technical obstacles that need to be addressed.  Political challenges include finding the right mechanisms to encourage reduced use of fossil fuels and increased use of emissions-free energy, such as changes to fuel subsidies and taxes on carbon.  These mechanisms can rapidly impact the economics of the continued use of fossil fuels versus zero-emitting alternatives.  Social issues may include addressing barriers such as “range anxiety” for EVs and concern over possible increased costs for electricity consumption.  All of these are complex, multi-faceted opportunities that need to be recognized by governments, regulators, and private businesses to facilitate the shift to non-emitting electricity generation.

In the future, distributed generation and batteries, demand-side management (DSM), EVs, and an overall significant increase in producers will bring a new complexity to the grid, requiring new solutions for monitoring, data analysis, reliability, and control of the grid. Today’s grid is comparable to a system with one hundred 1000 MW elephants. Tomorrow’s grid will be similar to millions of 1 MW cats, albeit greener cats, but still cats.

In the short-term, new market designs, connection rules, operational protocols, and software will enable the grid and operate these new elements within the existing grid designs and limitations.  In the long term, new tools will be needed. These tools would support receiving millions of inputs per second and make optimum economic decisions while preserving system reliability and security of what has been called “the most complex machine in the world” - our electric grid.

In the future, such an optimized grid will allow lower-cost generation in one service territory to support customers in other service territories across the U.S. It will enable peer-to-peer transactions, automatic peak shifting, and optimization of battery and EV charge and discharge. It will allow renewable energy to be placed in areas such as the Desert Southwest and transferred to metropolitan load centers on a nationwide HVDC Grid, and will do so while continuing to maintain reliability in an increasingly complex system.  

Today’s grid and electricity markets rely on software systems and tools built over the last several decades to support the grid of the past. The future grid, whose design and requirements are apparent today, will require grid topology-aware platforms with analytics-based orchestration and control. Thus, the future grid will bring optionality and value to producers and customers, allowing producers to sell across distance and time and consumers to access many producers and products.

Some argue that “There aren’t enough distributed energy resource (DER) renewable generation facilities, batteries, etc., today to cause a problem, so why invest in tools to manage that now?” NASA did not wait until the Apollo Spacecraft was built until it designed the control system; Boeing and Airbus do not wait until the plane is designed to consider the control system. Neither should we.

Today many of these newer software tools address specific areas and, therefore, a subset of the issues.  To achieve a genuinely optimal result, we need programs that can consider the totality of the problem. An example is the human body. If we start by enhancing each component, by making the heart beat as fast as possible and the adrenal gland produce adrenalin as quickly as possible, it is unlikely that we would consider the result to be the most ideal. A true optimum can only be obtained by considering all of the variables.

Further, only a coordinated program can assess the reliability parameters that individual plans cannot. Anyone who has ever tried to site a plant knows of the years of stability studies that can result. Transmission operators understand that a failure on one line can affect operations several states away, and as complexity grows, N-1 conditions will also grow. Only a big picture program, aware of all the decisions, can adequately ensure economic optionality and reliability.

We must invest today in tools to comprehensively analyze, forecast, and optimize the dispatch of DER load-shaping programs, battery storage and discharge, weather analysis, load forecasting,  optimization, reliability, and more.

Distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) are currently under development and in early commercialization.  DERMS are rapidly evolving to help manage the emerging resources that minimize new investments in the existing grid while providing fairness to customers with DERs, batteries, DSM and more, as well as those without DERs.  While there may only be a relatively small number of distribution and transmission systems impacted today, the rapid acceleration of change in our grid requires us to continue to develop for tomorrow with solutions we can deploy today.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”  Abraham Lincoln


About the Authors

Charles E. Bayless is a member of the Board of Directors of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and a retired Utility Executive and University President.

Andy Bennett is CEO of mPrest, Inc., heading up the Company’s North American energy division. mPrest is a developer of world-leading distributed asset orchestration and grid-optimization software.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 9, 2021

In the future, such an optimized grid will allow lower-cost generation in one service territory to support customers in other service territories across the U.S. It will enable peer-to-peer transactions, automatic peak shifting, and optimization of battery and EV charge and discharge. I

Lots of the biggest stories/crises of the past few years would have been way less impactful if this were the case-- if ERCOT were attached to other grid systems during the winter freeze, if NW summer loads could benefit from receiving energy from less strained resources, etc. This is such an important area to invest in, not to mention the jobs it'll create!

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jul 12, 2021

Charles. Great point in this article. But we also have to be careful which renewable choices we make and not be misdirected by the term emission free power.  That is Bill Gates way of putting his favorite Nuclear Energy in the answer. While it doesn't make direct CO2 pollution in uses limited uranium which mostly comes from Russia. It is deadly to mine. Deadly to ship and deadly during and after use. We have 104 reactors in the US alone with tons of deadly waste stored on site. It uses water for cooling and to boil to make power. It is a very expensive choice. 

    Real renewable like Solar PV, Wind , hydro and Geo-Thermal are great choices and get lower in cost each year. With the advanced lithium batteries also used in electric vehicles they provide storage by the Mega Watt. The vehicles can provide V2G Vehicle to GRID storage too. 

    So be sure to look at all thexfactors and don't be confused by Bill Gates. He may know software but has more FACTS to learn on energy. 

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Jul 13, 2021

This is indeed a thought provoking article, but I have to say, there is very little new information from what the industry has known since the NIST Smart Grid initiative began in 2009.

The missing "catalyst" is an urgency and dedication by leaders to address climate change and grid reliability using a technical/engineering approach. Far too many people are focused on solving these problems with an "economics first approach". The Texas freeze in February 2021 exposed the deep flaws in market designs, when economic policy trumps sound engineering principles to solve a technical problem, like grid reliability. Even today, some policy makers are taking an "economics first" approach to address grid reliability and reduce carbon emissions; "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it".

Charles Bayless's picture
Thank Charles for the Post!
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