Beneficial Electrification and Renewable Energy for the Smart Grid of Tomorrow
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It won’t be long until we power everything in the world with wind, water and sunshine. There is a push toward converting end uses of energy, that have traditionally been met with direct combustion of fossil fuels, to use electricity, instead. This is beneficial electrification, or strategic electrification, and its game-changing disruptions can help us stop carbon pollution.
There’s hundreds of years’ worth of coal underground for us to burn, but it’s going to stay there. We no longer need it to make electricity.
Historically, grid operators have created electricity with problematic resources like coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy – but with the emergence of renewables and electrification, the nature of the grid has begun to change.
Electricity is becoming cleaner at an impressive rate, and the time is right to electrify everything. Whether it comes from residential solar systems or our growing asset of utility-scale renewable energy systems, clean power will flow into an increasingly electrified world of devices.
The beauty of beneficial electrification is that as electricity becomes cleaner, so will everything we do with it. Electric cars are cleaner to drive than any gas cars pretty much everywhere in the US, and they’re only getting cleaner.
As utilities invest more into renewable energy infrastructure, electricity will steadily use less fossil fuel per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. If we power our grid with 100% renewable energy, we can nearly eliminate greenhouse gas emissions altogether by electrifying everything under the sun.
To bolster the penetration of renewables on our electric grid, and to see the biggest benefit of electrification, we need to electrify space heating, water heating, and, especially, transportation. With today’s heat pumps (Mitsubishi Electric), heat pump water heaters (Stiebel Eltron), and next-generation electric cars (Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf), we already have the solutions.
The Flexibility to Give
Not only will these devices be cleaner than their predecessors, they will also be more flexible, smarter. The modern grid will become smarter, too, and increased flexibility in generation, interconnection, storage and demand response around the grid will meet the challenges of a more electrified world.
The variability of certain renewable resources like wind, solar or tidal energy presents the challenge of generating power smoothly at all hours, but properly mixing those different resources around the grid will create the flexibility needed to respond to changes in demand and supply.
Though it is also possible to import electricity across network borders to help stabilize the grid, flexible interconnection with the growing amount of residential solar electricity in our own network is the better way to meet that need. Decentralizing our grid in this way allows for power to be consumed where it is produced, lowering rates for everybody.
Battery storage is often heralded as the best solution to variable power production, and it will indeed play a part, but it is a higher priority to integrate and balance available renewable energy resources. That said, batteries are an obvious way to help, especially as their costs drop and capacities grow.
Load flexibility, or demand response, will have a critical part of balancing a renewable energy grid, as it is the most cost effective method. Demand response programs existed in the past to balance supply and demand by prompting large, industrial customers to lower their usage at certain times of day during periods of high power prices or when the reliability of the grid was threatened.
Now, the world of beneficial electrification has opened an unlimited number of possibilities for demand response – the internet has rendered it no harder to turn off 1,000 water heaters than it is to turn off a paper mill. Furthermore, a smart heat pump water heater will run when there is excess solar on the grid, but not when demand is high – basically performing the same function as a battery, but at maybe 2% of the cost, since all we buy is a switch telling it to run or not.
Our devices are increasingly able to communicate across the grid and operate only when most efficient. The “flexi-watts” they run on when there’s a surplus of renewable power will enable us to keep making the grid smarter. The grid is evolving beyond simply supplying electricity, into a network that makes the most of its distributed energy resources.
Much like the internet changed the way we participate with our media, it’s now changing the way we interact with our budding smart grid.
A Virtuous Cycle
Traditional energy efficiency metrics, that have been improving our electronics for years now, overlook the wide range of emissions efficiencies from electricity generation. Kilowatt-hours from different sources can have vastly different emissions profiles, ranging from as much as 2 lbs. of CO2 to almost nothing.
The worthy effort to reduce usage of dirty electricity through energy efficiency programs has been the focus of our policy and incentives, but when we consider the improved emissions of renewable energy, we see that it’s better to increase the amount of electricity we use when it comes from a clean source.
Pairing beneficial electrification with a cleaner, smarter grid creates a beneficial exchange that inspires more electrification and greener electricity in a virtuous cycle.
On the Verge of Renewed Strength
We stand on the verge of massive opportunities through beneficial electrification, but we must recognize that those opportunities won’t be achieved through an indiscriminate focus on reducing kilowatt-hours. It’s more important we clean up our kilowatt-hours, and use them.
If regulators and legislators fail to recognize the strengths of renewables and beneficial electrification in a timely manner, and phase out legacy policies that favor fossil fuels, there will be long-term negative impacts for us and the environment. Instead, they can foster long-term growth, unlocking significant economic and societal benefits by getting to work on incentives and initiatives for renewable energy.
The sooner this is acted upon the sooner we can see all the ways a smarter, more flexible grid can increase reliability, security, sustainability, and open new opportunities for services and business. Coal was just the beginning of our electricity – and the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.