Will Van Eaton, Grid Engineering Solutions Marketing Manager at SolarCity, talks about the role of distributed energy resources, particularly solar power, in making the electric grid cleaner, less expensive and more resilient. At SolarCity, a US leader in full-service solar power systems for homes, businesses and governments, Will Van Eaton develops strategies for cross-industry collaboration, and supports projects with utilities that leverage DERs to benefit the grid and customers. This article is part of The Climate Group’s Home2025 project.
In the first six months of 2015, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reported that renewables accounted for nearly 70% of new capacity. GTM Research anticipates the US solar industry alone will deploy 1 gigawatt of new projects each month through the end of 2016.
The continued proliferation of solar power creates an opportunity to evolve the electric grid beyond an outdated architecture that relies on large, centralized power plants – as well as expensive transmission and distribution infrastructure.
One of the challenges with this legacy architecture is its lack of flexibility to adapt to changing consumer preferences and shifting populations, potentially leading to large stranded costs as grid needs change over time. For example, areas of robust electric demand – such as business-heavy urban areas or suburban neighborhoods with an influx of electric vehicles – are likely to outstrip the abilities of an aging power grid to grow and accommodate that demand.
Traditional investments to upgrade infrastructure including substations, transformers and wires are expected to total US$879 billion from 2010 through 2030, which is significantly more than in the previous 20-year period.
One strategy to defer or avoid these types of large-scale, capital-intensive upgrades is by deploying and aggregating distributed energy resources (DERs) such as solar panel systems, battery storage and intelligent loads.
By siting these resources near the source of consumption, they can meet grid needs locally, rather than requiring costly upgrades to transmission and distribution equipment.
Diverse portfolios of locally deployed assets offer flexible solutions to meet a wide range of grid needs and critical services. And the incorporation of DERs can create a cleaner, less expensive and more resilient grid.
Homes that make smarter use of energy have an important role to play in this transition.
Solar energy, battery storage, smart inverters, and connected appliances like thermostats and hot water heaters can work in concert – woven together by intelligent software – to optimize when a home consumes, stores, and conserves energy.
A “smart energy home” can know when it should use its solar panel system to power appliances and charge a battery, and when it’s better to send surplus power production to its neighbors.
These homes can also automatically adjust thermostat settings, lighting intensity and appliances to avoid high grid electricity prices at certain times of day.
Each smart energy home helps its residents lower their energy costs while producing clean power. When these homes are aggregated together, they create resilient community grids that can power themselves locally and intelligently, even when the broader electric grid goes down.
As weather patterns have become more erratic and storms more severe in the face of a changing climate, reliable backup power has become more important for residential communities.
But smart energy homes are just one component of the 21st century grid. They’ll be complemented by other smart energy buildings, such as offices and schools, and will operate alongside grid-scale renewables and battery storage.
Together, they will enable a cleaner grid based increasingly on distributed resources, and optimized by the dynamic tools, data analytics and advanced technology that grid operators seek.
Making this grid a reality will require cross-functional collaboration from diverse stakeholders across traditional utilities, grid operators, regulators, national laboratories, energy service providers and customers. These groups can help shift policies and regulations to realign incentives and encourage clean power and energy storage at scale.
Examples of this shift are already taking shape, such as California’s Distribution Resource Plans and New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceedings, which are encouraging utilities to recognize the full value of distributed generation resources.
These initiatives also promote a regulatory environment that encourages a more competitive market, and that can reward utilities for implementing least-cost/best-fit solutions and adopting innovative technology.
Reimagining the home is an essential step in the migration to cleaner, more sustainable energy production.