Unless you are an electrician, understanding the electrical grid can feel like a topic better left to the experts. However, our dependence on reliable electricity at the touch of a switch, especially in triple digit weather, is undeniable.
The electricity sector accounts for the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The need to reduce carbon emissions and pollution, and the need for cheaper, safer and more reliable energy, are all vital reasons for understanding the future of the electrical grid.
Emerging technology has made cellphones and mobile devices more efficient, accessible, secure and reliable. Shouldn’t we expect the same of our electrical system? The electrical grid in the US is in the process of a major revamping. How will a smart grid and regional integrated systems change lives for consumers?
The current, piecemeal infrastructure in the US is nearing the end of its useful life. The out-dated grid was set up as a vertical system, where each power company procures its own generation, builds its own power lines and plans for demand and supply with its own resources. This system is now proving redundant, inefficient and less able to keep up with integrating new renewable energy sources into the mix.
Solar plants and wind generation, while beneficial in many ways, has several obstacles- mainly the infrastructure needed to travel long distances and the coordination of use. Solar and wind are typically built in regions far from populated centers and need to be transmitted long distances in order to link the cleanest resources to the biggest loads. Many regions, like Nevada can make more energy than needed, therefore sharing with neighboring regions and states is ideal.
The good news is that several regions across the country have created Regional Transmission Organizations, interchangeable referred to as RTO or ISO (Independent System Operators). These organizations oversee wholesale power markets, ensure supply and demand and plan for regional needs. A recent report by The Brattle Group claims that reforming our electrical transmission system, “could save customers up to tens of billions of dollars annually in overall cost savings.”
There are several successful regional organizations in the midwest and eastern parts of the US, however there is only one so far in the west, the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO). A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claims a reorganization in the west is underway and badly needed, as there are presently 38 separate operating systems referred to as Balancing Area Authorities (BAA), Nevada being one of them. In an interview with the author of the report, NRDC’s Director of Western Transmission, Carl Zichella, he explained that “the western grid is like a bus with 38 drivers.”
According to Zichella, a regional organization would be “cleaner, cheaper, faster and safer than the existing system in which NV Energy is one of 38 entities currently independently responsible for running parts of the western grid.”
An integrated, regional grid could help deal with economies of scale, include technological improvements, like smart grid sensors and needed HVDC transmission lines, and comply with national policy goals that boost renewable energy. An RTO would direct output of energy where it is needed. This is done by operating an electricity market. The Regional operator would buy energy from the lowest priced producer. The prices are based on fuel cost, operations and maintenance costs (O & M), and any regulatory compliance cost, like carbon adders. Renewable energy will be bought first as it is cheaper due to no fuel cost (the sun, wind and the flow of water are free), low O & M costs and no carbon costs. This market will help move energy use to more sustainable sources in a low-cost, efficient and reliable manner, while allowing fossil fuel producers time to phase out their stranded assets. In addition, it makes the best use of excess renewable energy on extra sunny or windy days by transferring it to populated regions.
Living without electricity
In March of 2011, after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, my husband’s family, among tens of thousands of others living on the northeast coast of Japan, experienced what it was like to suddenly have no reliable access to electricity. In addition to the danger due to the damage done to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, many of the challenges had to do with an aging, fragmented grid. Just like the US, Japan built its electrical grid vertically and in segments where needed.
In a perfect world, had they had a regional, integrated, smart grid they could have used computers to switch off all damaged areas, identified structural damage from outside the affected region and then sent electricity supply to the areas needed until the damaged plants could be recovered.
I remember hearing my relatives struggles to live without electricity for many weeks. I always wonder how Americans would fare in that situation.
What’s on the horizon for Nevada?
Zichella is confident that Nevada is ripe for joining California and other western states and become part of CAISO. He insists that “the expanded regional market provides lower costs for utility customers, reduces greenhouse gas and other air pollution, better uses the existing transmission and generation fleet and helps coordinate the operation of the system for better reliability. Without an RTO, the balkanization of 38 drivers leads to more pollution, duplicative infrastructure development, higher costs and less reliability.”
And for Nevadans, distributive generation (DG) like rooftop solar also becomes a win-win. Zichella explained that the CAISO is currently implementing a program to allow the aggregation of DG resources, like rooftop solar, so they can bid into the wholesale energy market. He suggests that it could apply to other market participants, including NVenergy. He continued to warn however, that state procurement policies will still drive decisions in Nevada.
Therefore the future of Nevada’s electric grid lays in the hands of those we elect to our state offices. There are four months left until election day. That’s plenty of time to call your State Senate and Assembly candidates and find out their stances and intentions on this important issue. Complaining without doing anything is empty and futile.
Published in the Las Vegas Review Journal on July 9, 2016