Our team attended the DC Solar Congress presented by DC Solar United Neighbors earlier this month. For us, the most fascinating topic covered was grid modernization. If you don’t know yet what that’s about or why it’s vitally important for reaching clean energy goals, read on!
More than just routine repairs
To some, the term grid modernization has a lot to do with taking a beat-up, aging system of distributing energy from power plants and doing line maintenance, hardening and undergrounding. But there’s vastly more to grid modernization than that, according to the presenters on this recent panel.
The true goal of grid modernization in the 21st century should be bringing the energy delivery system up to the present day and preparing for a future of dramatically more clean energy, to increase sustainability and resilience.
Panel facilitator Tanuj Deora of Simple Energy delved into a vision for “The City as a Virtual Power Plant” and brought up big questions around what it would take to incorporate distributed solar into the grid the right way, and how to make the grid cleaner, more consumer-centric, and conducive to affordable energy over time.
Flipping the energy delivery script
Grid modernization is an opportunity to transform the grid from being organized top-down to being driven bottom-up. In other words, the objective is to start shifting from the dynamic we have today where energy supply chases demand - with peaker power plants ramping on to satisfy the briefest, rarest peak loads during the year - to a future where demand follows supply. In this future scenario, there’s exponentially more renewable energy on the grid, and would be able to let the production from those sources dictate how much energy we use and when.
The utility’s grid - our grid - will be optimized at every level from home weatherization to well-managed power stations, substations, and lines. There’s even something called scata controls, which are essentially sensors for utility circuits - pulling in information from meters to help heal and fix the grid.
To meet DC’s climate goals including the standard of 50% renewable energy by 2032, the panel outlined three things that have to change: We have to change the market structure, and change the sources we rely on, in order to change transportation and electric system for buildings.
And that probably means a shift to performance-based ratemaking - rather than just looking at what the utility spends and using that to determine what they should earn. It stands to reason that a new model is called for, and now is the time, now that our aging grid is at the end of its life.
Do you know in what year DC electrified its streetcars? It was in 1892. The US completed its electric power system in 1938 - that’s over 80 years ago. The centralized generation model is dying financially and just isn't serving customers well anymore. One sign the times have changed: we now have energy consumers who are also energy producers - referred to during the panel discussion as “prosumers”. Solar owners on net metering - or even by exclusively self-consuming their solar power - reduce the need for new power plants and we can do more to help them engage with the grid in new and better ways. We can make “prosuming” smarter and more valuable by deploying more appliances with timing or programmable features, home batteries with automation, and electric vehicle charging that’s advanced or even two-way.
A utility like PEPCO has an opportunity to rise to the challenge to think through these new dynamics.
How will we get the best possible grid modernization plan?
Panelist Larry Martin weighed in on this question. He hopes to see organizations lobby the Public Utilities Commission, push the utility, and persuade the Mayor’s office on certain issues. (And meanwhile, for those who want energy storage, install it and send a clear message!)
When you pay a power bill, said Martin, you pay your way for a spot in the stakeholder process - so use what you paid for! The recent grid modernization stakeholder process produced 42 recommendations - mostly with consensus and some opposed by certain stakeholders, with 6 key positions taken. One important outcome was a $20 million pilot program for a Virtual Power Plant, and we’re excited to see where that goes!
The Distributed Energy Resources Authority
How the heck can we follow through with the ambitious targets in the Clean Energy DC Omnibus given how far we have to go? The plan is to essentially overlay a market for technological solutions on top of the grid, with this market being operated by the new Distributed Energy Resources Authority. What’s needed is an open ecosystem - a marketplace to introduce and scale these new emerging, upstart technologies. With the utility providing a strong foundation that enables innovation, tech players would roll out solutions on top of the grid, with planning and operation handled by DERA.
There is $750 million currently allocated for grid modernization. The panel stressed that it wouldn’t go far enough if spent working on the grid directly. The idea is to use it as seed money to invest in innovative solutions and get 10 times the impact. So we have opportunities for new technology, players who understand the District's energy needs, and people at DERA who are able to communicate with innovators in their language, on their schedule, on their wavelength.
The consumer perspective
As a Washington DC energy customer with many years of experience engaging in policy and regulations, Robert Robinson of Mount Pleasant, an original member of the solar coop there, brought it all back to reliability.
DC learned a big lesson 7 years ago. We were hit by the derecho in 2012, and unlike Chattanooga TN (which the derecho struck hours before DC) where the municipal utility was already using grid engineering practices like loop circuits and fiber network in their lines, DC's aging grid took (in places) an entire week to restore power - whereas TN was totally restored within hours of the storm.
Not only does our grid not support renewable energy, the derecho event showed that it wasn't resilient and that the utility didn’t have a path to make it better. It’s a reminder that our utility payments don't necessarily go to fund the services we would care about or desire most - and another good example of that is energy efficiency programs.
There is now a DC sustainable energy utility getting $25 million per year funded by ratepayers, which is helping address the problem that the utility only has an incentive to grow volume of energy sold, not reduce it. Paying back the utility for cost-recovery for energy efficiency helps but there’s a need to think bigger. This relates to the role of solar PPAs in the Clean Energy DC Omnibus bill, or rather lack thereof.
Solar PPAs and non-wires alternatives
As the Clean Energy DC Omnibus was being crafted, it became apparent to Robinson that the outgoing PUC chair was disposed against Power Purchase Agreements of any kind, and Robinson paints this bias as a major problem with the legislation, which could have relied on PPAs to help ensure fair solar project costs through competitive bidding. Behind the scenes, in order to keep nuclear energy out of the bill, supporters of solar let PPAs be removed from the bill. DC residents still have an opportunity to speak up in favor of solar PPAs, especially if there is a proposal near you.
But as solar customers know, large scale solar isn’t the only way to go! The panel concluded by touching on the concept of supporting non-wires alternatives as part of grid modernization. By building a distributed resource, like solar at a community scale, specifically in a place that has greater demand and is underserved by the grid, instead of upgrading lines that go there, it’s possible to enjoy cleaner air and save all the ratepayers costs now and down the line.
We enjoyed learning about the win-win solutions that make grid modernization such an exciting element at the center of DC’s plans for a clean energy future.