Managing the transition from fossil fuel to renewables

Despite the rhetoric coming from the White House about the need to preserve the U.S. coal industry and remain tethered to fossil fuels, most people with a modicum of common sense realize that renewable energy is the better way to go. It's far cleaner, of course, and once the infrastructure is set up it can be dramatically cheaper.

The challenge, of course, is committing the necessary funds to change and upgrade our electrical grid to accommodate these new energy sources as we ride out the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

"Grandma's electrical system" — the 130-year-old model in which monolithic utilities get energy from a small number of huge electric generators — won't work in the future, according to Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell, who spoke at an industry conference in Burlington last week. As Powell explained, the logistics of the old model don't mesh with small renewable energy generators that are proliferating throughout the state. She also noted that customers are demanding other approaches, VTDigger reports.

That sentiment was echoed by other conference speakers who said most Americans don't support the massive coal-fired power plants that once dominated the country's electric market, because they're aware of the costs and risks of the pollution they generate. And while the American coal industry has been decimated by cheap natural gas, the cheapest new generation resource these days is actually wind power, said Tom Dunn, VELCO's president and CEO.

"This transformation is going to happen in spite of what goes on in Washington," Dunn said.

That's the good news. The bad news is that paying for that transformation - i.e. upgrades to the electrical grid and transmission lines — can get expensive.

Conference speakers had some encouraging news, however: Vermont may be able to avoid expensive electrical grid upgrades by increasing the use of technological solutions and in particular efficiency, VTDigger reports. The cheapest form of electricity is power that isn't purchased, more than one of them said.

"One way to meet the growth (in electric demand) is not to have the growth," said Ethan Goldman, an energy informatics architect at Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

Managing peak demand will become especially important in coming years, as electric vehicles proliferate and sectors of the economy that now rely on fossil fuels or other emissions-heavy fuels convert to electricity, speakers said.

"It's about crushing the ... peak," said Powell.

Grid operators must pay to build and maintain enough capacity to handle peak power demand, but that amount can be at least twice what's needed on any given day.

Lower those daily and seasonal peaks, the thinking goes, and you can lower costs.

Powell said she hopes Green Mountain Power can bring its peak demand down to 600 megawatts, from the current peak of 760 megawatts.

Doing so "can shed a lot of the costs of the inefficiencies of the New England grid and we can save significant money over the next couple of decades by doing that," Powell said.

Conference presenters said many of these savings would be realized through greater focus on the people who actually buy the electricity.

Industry representatives at the conference discussed a range of approaches, including the use of increasingly sophisticated tools such as "smart" home electric meters that relay a range of data to utilities, and machine-learning software that can predict when peaks will take place. These devices detail the use of computers, appliances, TVs, lights and other household equipment. Customers can respond to electricity prices in real time and shut down appliances to save money. In the future, appliances may even be able to respond to price signals and shut down automatically.

At the very least, that would save parents the aggravation of constantly reminding kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room.


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