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Goals for the electrical system of the future?

Doug Houseman's picture
Visionary and innovator in the utility industry and grid modernization Burns & McDonnell

I have a broad background in utilities and energy. I worked for Capgemini in the Energy Practice for more than 15 years. During that time I rose to the position of CTO of the 12,000 person...

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  • Jul 1, 2021

With the transition occurring in the electric system, what should be the goals of the system? Our current goals and principles, including regulatory are more than a century old, are they still relevant to the future system?

1)    Universal connection, everyone is offered a connection?

2)    No cross subsidization of different customer types (e.g., Industrial customers pay their share, and so do residential customers)?

3)    Highly reliable system, with a reasonable level of resiliency?

4)    Who should be responsible for resiliency the customer or the utility?

5)    Build out the system only for known load, do not overbuild for future needs (e.g., don’t build to support future EV’s)?

6)    Customers should have their needs (not wants) for energy met 24/365?

7)    Acts of God are a reason for the system to go out (e.g., hurricanes)

8)    Electricity should be as economical as possible; price is more important than quality?

9)    The grid is a free “battery” that any producer can use?

10) The obligation to serve belongs to the local utility? (e.g., they are responsible for making sure the supply matches the load)

These 10 questions form the framework of our system today, should they form the framework as we transition? Each of them has an impact of duties, responsibilities, costs to build and costs to operate and maintain. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 1, 2021

Doug, the only factor that's different about public electricity now vs. in 1935 is the threat of climate change, and though using the atmosphere as a dumping ground for the byproducts of generating electricity is no longer a satisfactory solution, other priorities remain the same:

1) FDR believed access to electricity is a fundamental right in a free society. Today, I think most would agree.

2) A perfectly fair pricing system doesn't exist. The goal should continue to be offering the "least unfair" pricing for all customers.

3) Highly reliable system, with a reasonable level of resiliency? Check. And Check.

4) Maintaining a resilient electrical grid is a cost, as much as generating electricity, as much as maintaining transmission. Asking customers to use less electricity during peak demand foists the cost on them, with implications for social justice (it's well-established that low-income customers are disproportionately affected by "demand/response" programs). From a POV of economics, the most efficient cost allocation is to the provider, which can take advantage of economies of scale to achieve reliability en masse.

5) Electrical grids, like highways or municipal waters systems, must be built to accommodate future needs. A system that's adequate today will be inadequate tomorrow.

6) The difference between needs and wants is an exercise in semantics, but traditionally utilities have addressed consumer wants (why consumption is known as "demand").

7) "Are Acts of God a reason for the system to go out?" is a question you would need to ask him/her.

8) Price should be proportional to quality - ensured by choice in a free market, and regulators in electricity and other natural monopolies.

9) Batteries store energy, the grid does not. With electricity it matters - a lot.

10) Depends. PG&E, with 16 million customers, isn't a local utility for anyone. The obligation to serve electricity rests on many entities, including the utility, the RTO, the state Public Utility Commission, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and several others.

Alan Ross's picture
Alan Ross on Jul 5, 2021

Great comments Bob, although number 3, High reliability and reasonable resiliency, when you say "check and check", do you mean we have achieved this or that it is a goal? If a goal, then great, but if a check as if we have achieved it, I would have to disagree. From a professional reliability standpoint, I believe we are still in process. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 6, 2021

Agree, Alan. It's a goal, and an important one.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jul 5, 2021

Seems to me reliable energy at a reasonable price should be the guiding principle. How that is achieved is more of a regional consideration, largely as a result of access to energy sources, e.g. natural gas, hydro, nuclear, coal, green resources, etc.

Worrying about the distant future (particularly the planet’s climate) is an exercise in futility, as the uncertainties are so immense. Spending massive sums of today’s dollars to combat distant perceived threats makes little economic sense because the money is better spent on near term real problems.

Based on the historical record, technological innovations will produce more efficient production and use of energy. These consideration by themselves inherently reduce emissions.

Doug Houseman's picture
Thank Doug for the Post!
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