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The Future of Electric Power in the United States – Part 1

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John Benson's picture
Senior Consultant Microgrid Labs

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE:Microgrid Labs, Inc.Senior Consultant: 2014 to PresentDeveloped product plans, conceptual and preliminary designs for projects, performed industry surveys and developed...

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Occasionally, I come across an information source that is really, REALLY good, but (sort of) overwhelms me. I did so in Early March. The good news is that I have very wide editorial freedom with Energy Central, and can choose what I write about. Or more to the point, feel that I am qualified to write about. In this instance, the subjects I don’t feel I should write about are primarily issues that are difficult to quantify (like cultural, regulatory or societal issues) or difficult to predict (future financial and legal considerations).

The title source is referenced in each of the three parts of this paper.  This is a monster document, but well worth reading. I completed this task (with much skimming) and will summarize about half of it in this paper and those that follow. I will also note the sections I am not covering. You can download this document and read both yourself.

Note that this review will require three posts and some of the posts are rather long. The three parts of this paper will be posted on the weeks of 4/19 and 4/26.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 20, 2021

One of the main wild-cards in predicting the future is the accelerating rate of technological development. Consider the new technologies that were developed, greatly expanded, or those that have become much less expensive over the last 10 or 20 years now impact most electric utility functions.

This aspect makes the future planning process a particular challenge-- you want to balance reasonable estimates of where technology is headed without going to far and counting on as-of-yet unavailable technology to bail you out of the problems of today.

What's a reasonable timeframe that utilities should use to plan in this way? Is there value in making assumptions for tech development beyond 10 years from now? 

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Apr 20, 2021

Thanks for the comment and question, Matt.

It also inspired an idea for a future post.

The answer depends on the nature of the disruptive innovation. Several of these innovations are listed below along with how the future might play out for their development.

Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS): The primary disruption here will be more efficient battery manufacturing processes that are being developed for EVs and will trickle down to the chemistries used for BESS (currently primarily LFP (LiFePO4 or Lithium Iron Phosphate). These will result in substantial price reductions at every scale. This will happen over the next two to five years.

Windpower: Offshore wind has a higher capacity factor and lower cost per unit energy. This will emerge in the U.S. East Coast first (2 to five years from now) and later for the West Coast.

Photovoltaic: The technologies for the current reduction curve are already in the field.  In the West, the PV's energy is already the least expensive. Repowering older arrays will continue this curve for the next 5 to 10 years.

Microgrids: This is the wild-card, because it's primary drivers are BESS, PV, and control systems, and all of these are on a downward price curve, and increasing capability.

Beyond five to ten years are where we will see new emergent  technologies appear and start additional market disruptions, so if a utility or utility product producer is trying to plan beyond 10 years, I  feel like they are wasting their time.

Microgrids are the future post. I have written several articles on using these to avoid wildfires in California, and this is a large market, but there are also much larger adjacent market segments that these systems could "escape" to.

-John

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 20, 2021

Great point that the answer to my question inherently varies based on what technologies we're talking about! Appreciate your insights on this, as always. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Apr 26, 2021

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” Yogi Berra

Given all the variables, not sure it is particularly useful to engage in focused long range planning. Further, strikes me that knee jerk reactions to current events (especially political) is the recipe for making the future worse.

A better approach for energy relies on a balanced portfolio while recognizing that the “experts” invariably miss.

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Apr 26, 2021

Agreed.

However, I will make a prediction for tomorrow: the third and final part of this series will be posted. The second part was posted last Thursday.

-John

Greg Smestad's picture
Greg Smestad on Apr 28, 2021

Thanks John for the great 3 part post!  What you shared is very much consistent with what's being observed in the international (global) community.  For example, see:

IRENA electricity price forecast
https://www.irena.org/costs/Power-Generation-Costs

For PV:
https://www.irena.org/costs/Charts/Solar-photovoltaic

There, look at Quick Links and then Charts.

One of many things on the near-term horizon for PV is -

Rodriguez-Gallegos et al., Global Techno-Economic Performance of Bifacial and Tracking Photovoltaic Systems, Joule 4, 1514–1541, July 15, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2020.05.005

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Apr 29, 2021

Thanks for the information, Greg.

Although I was heavily involved with international business when I worked for Landis & Gyr / Siemens (about 30 years), I try to restrict my posts to U.S. Energy and Environmental Issues, and most are about my home State (California).

-John

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