Asked to look ahead to a grid powered by renewables, executives from leading electric utilities Monday identified what they’ll need to make it work, from new kinds of equipment to new kinds of employees.
The executives from ComEd, Edison International, ENEL, and ISO New England put together this shopping list in Chicago Monday during the general meeting of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Power and Energy Society:
1 Seasonal Storage
Utility executives seem confident short-term energy storage is arriving, first in the form of cheaper lithium-ion batteries, then in improved alternatives under development. But that’s not the only kind of storage they need.
“We’re not going to be able to solve the world’s problems and get off fossil until we have seasonal storage,” said Gordon van Welie, president and chief executive officer of ISO New England Inc., a non-profit that generates and transmits electricity throughout Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Many have said energy storage will be a game changer, van Welie noted, but the true game changer for renewables will be seasonal storage, allowing energy generated in sunny summer months to be used in the depths of winter.
California has had success using hydroelectric power for seasonal storage, said J. Andrew Murphy, senior vice president of strategic planning for Edison International, but California’s not building more dams. Scientists are busy in laboratories developing seasonal solutions, like a bionic leafthat uses sunlight to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be stored until needed.
“I know there’s a lot of exciting work being done in labs,” van Welie said, “but it seems like it’s a long way from being commercial.”
Sensors will provide the intelligence that makes the grid smart enough to accommodate customers who generate electricity at home and interact with other consumers, “prosumers,” and utilities.
“It’s going to be absolutely critical for the future,” said Terence Donnelly, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Chicago-based ComEd. “As we have more two-way power flows we need more state-of-the-system measurement, which is beyond sort of our current static measurements now. There’s a huge opportunity for technology needed there.”
ENEL plans to invest $5 billion in grid improvements in Europe, said Donata Susca, head of network development for the multinational electricity distributor based in Italy. That includes not only sensors, but new lines and substations and batteries the sensors will monitor. And U.S. utilities see the same need:
“We’ve got to have technologies that can better integrate these high levels of renewables and utilize them at the right times,” Murphy said.
3 Underground Transmission
“When you look at big wind or big renewables, if you have that, you need transmission,” said Donnelly. “If you stay on the transmission side it’s just really difficult to build any transmission you can see that’s over head. We look at superconducting cables that can have a lot of capacity and occupy less space and I think the industry… has really not come up with some hardcore designs that allow underground transmission to be effectively installed that drive high capacity and that occupy less space.”
Superconducting transmission lines could be run along highways or other right-of-ways, Donnelly said, linking the renewable resources distributed across the grid. The traditional infrastructure—cables strung from pole to pole—won’t do the job.
“You try to put something overhead, and it’s just not going to work,” Donnelly said. “When you look at large-scale renewables you need transmission and we need some technology in the underground arena to make it technically feasible. Obviously economically as well.”
4 Software Platforms
Utilities need software that will help them manage electricity distribution across a more complex grid, and they need new software to engage with customers as well. As utilities shift from centralized power providers to energy-services networks, they need software platforms that can empower customers and other participants to engage in new types of transactions that may emerge.
Individuals who generate their own electricity may want to sell it to other individuals, for example, so a peer-to-peer transaction platform may be necessary. Other utilities are looking for communication platforms. In Europe and South America, ENEL wants to develop an iPhone app that can help it communicate with line workers on utility poles, Susca said, not only within the company but among contractors as well.
5 Multi-Skilled Employees
The executives told a room packed with hundreds of electrical engineers they are looking for skills beyond electrical engineering: data analytics, machine learning, internet-of-things expertise, industrial design, flexible thinking, cybersecurity. And to top it off, the ideal candidate, they agreed, would be someone who also possesses engineering knowledge of the traditional transmission industry.
“For the students in the audience, what I heard was, think about taking other types of courses, from different departments,” said moderator Shay Bahramirad, ComEd’s director of distribution system planning, smart grid and innovation.
6 A Carbon Price
Governments are taking steps to save ailing nuclear plants,r to save ailing coal miners, to give solar and wind a boost. van Welie refers to these steps as “awkward accommodations” that complicate and distort energy markets. They are only necessary, he says, to balance the hidden subsidy that benefits fossil fuels: fossil fuels do not bear the cost of their externalities, their negative impacts.
“To me the way to solve that problem is not to get into awkward accommodations, which is I fear the path we’re on, but really to say let’s stop all the market subsidization and really put a real price on carbon,” he said. “Let’s put a real price on carbon, and the market will deliver that objective, and we won’t have to fuss around with all of these awkward accommodations.”