Coach Dave’s Playbook

As December draws to a close, I’m reflecting on all of the changes that we saw in 2017 and looking forward to the possibilities of 2018. Here are a few quick hits on topics I found interesting this month. Wishing you and yours a very happy holiday!

Grid modernization

Recognizing that the aging electricity grid is ill suited to keep up with rapid technological changes and an increasingly distributed energy system, states across the country (including the District of Columbia and Maryland) are taking steps to modernize their electric grids to increase customer choice and make the grid more resilient, responsive, and interactive. In fact, a recent report identified Maryland as one of the top five states in the nation at the leading edge of grid modernization (along with Illinois, Texas, Oregon, and California). Check out this recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, which argues that taking bold action on grid modernization would give Maryland—and other states that do the same—a competitive edge in the global economy. See also the Maryland Public Service Commission’s website for more information about the state’s grid modernization initiative (known as PC44).

Microgrids

Grid modernization lays the groundwork for microgrid innovation. Ever heard of a microgrid? The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) defines microgrids as “a combination of smart electric devices, power generation, and storage resources, connected to one or many loads, that can connect and disconnect from the grid at-will.” It’s also the solution for the greener, more resilient, and more reliable electric grid of the future.

Microgrids aren’t a new concept. In fact, we’ve used them for years at places like hospitals and military bases, which require a greater level of electricity reliability than the aging electric grid on its own can provide. Think about it—if the power supply were to fail (or even flicker) within an operating room or emergency room, it could have profoundly dire consequences. Older microgrids, though, are pretty basic and rely on loud and polluting devices (picture a diesel generator). 

Technology is expanding the possibilities of the microgrid. As costs for solar and other small- and community-scale renewables continue to fall, energy storage is becoming more economical, and software and machine learning are making if feasible to integrate multiple systems and appliances over the internet.

At present, however, 80 percent of operational microgrids exist in just seven states, mostly those that actively designed laws to accommodate their expansion. According to ILSR, a number of regulatory, financial, and technical barriers inhibit the growth of microgrids. State policies are at best ambiguous and at worst hostile toward microgrid development. But the possibilities are enticing. As Vox’s David Roberts writes, “What really tickles the imagination is a grid that contains dozens or hundreds of networked microgrids — even a grid that is someday composed of networked microgrids. This kind of ‘modular architecture,’ with multiple semi-autonomous nodes operating in parallel, is more secure and efficient than a centralized system with a few, large points of failure.”

Microgrids can also strengthen local economies. When an electric bill is paid, the money typically leaves the community and flows to distant shareholders of large corporations. But with a local microgrid that employs resources owned by community members, dollars stay in town and customers may even have the ability to buy and sell power and services with one another. The microgrid’s network enables households to coordinate energy-saving measures, sending energy bills downward even more.

While there might always be some demand for large-scale power plants and transmission lines, the electric grid of the future is bottom-up rather than top-down. Having more power generation, consumption, and management under local control will reduce our dependency on these large traditional power plants.

Bonus Item for Virginia Energy Wonks

Finally, for all of the energy wonks out there, here’s a way to actually understand Virginia energy law! (Thanks to my favorite Virginia energy blog for the tip on this one.)  The law firm GreeneHurlocker has produced a 33-page booklet compiling the major relevant code sections and annotating them in clear and concise English. Principles of Electric Utility Regulation in Virginia is more like a travel guide than a textbook, complete with a map and signposts directing the reader to sites of particular interest. To use another analogy, think of this tool as a flashlight for anyone looking to plumb the depths of complicated utility statutes!