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The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Integrating the Northwest’s Energy Infrastructure

September 4th, 2016 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Energy

markoby Mark Ohrenschall – Energy NewsData
Originally published in Energy NewsData’s Clearing Up

A far-reaching evolution is outlined in “Rewiring the Northwest’s Energy Infrastructure: An Integrated Vision and New Investment Strategy,” written by Rhys Roth, director of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at The Evergreen State College.Energy2040

The report’s framing question is: “How can the Northwest build one of the world’s most sustainable, resilient, and affordable energy systems by 2040?”

The short answer includes technology, a more unified approach to energy, a revised utility compact and organizational-leadership rearrangements.

rhysRoth–who discussed this report at the July 8 Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee board of directors meeting–sketches factors behind transformative energy change. Those include technologies (solar, batteries, smart home energy apps and more); “astonishing new opportunities for customer participation and choice” in the energy marketplace; aging infrastructure and workforce; climate policies; and an imperative for system resilience.

“A sustainable energy infrastructure will be much more complex than today’s, but it appears that a flexible, smart, super-efficient, clean system will likely be technically manageable, no more expensive, more resilient and less risky that maintaining and rebuilding today’s system,” the report said.

Technology plays a central role in this envisioned future, especially distributed energy resources such as solar, high-efficient homes and buildings (including “deep” efficiencies), individual energy tools (e.g. Nest thermostats) and microgrids.

From the larger grid perspective come the likes of energy storage; demand response; transmission-system capabilities such as synchrophasors and conservation voltage regulation to enhance flexibility and lower costs; and large-scale hydro, solar, wind and other resources.

Another essential theme of this future path is what Roth calls “integrated, silo-bridging solutions” for energy. In this category he puts electric vehicles; more-efficient and less-fossil-fueled heating and cooling; and solid waste, water and wastewater systems that use energy more efficiently, produce clean energy and collaborate to save money and increase value.

Key features of the envisioned 2040 system include a greater electricity role, and at least 90 percent renewable (including hydro); at least 80 percent heating/cooling/hot water from low-carbon systems; a 50-percent improvement in efficient electric use; a multidirectional grid with energy storage and management balancing supply and demand; and a majority of vehicle travel electrified.

Institutionally, the report foresees a continuing primary role for electric utilities, albeit with a potential “new utility compact” including business-model changes such as pay-for-performance to align utility financial incentives with policy goals.

Roth thinks state governments should have a “chief convener role, bringing all the key stakeholders together to help bring our energy and utility policy structures into the new era of energy technology transformation.”

He also suggests broadening the mission of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council “to apply its advanced analytic tools to plan for the energy system as a whole across, electricity, transportation and heat.”

The report argues this system vision is technically feasible and affordable, the latter reflecting the perspectives of energy users, life-cycle costs, declining costs for clean-energy technologies, and prospects for whole-system savings.

One could consider this report a utopian academic exercise, lacking a specific roadmap for this future energy system.

But I think this report has value as a thought paper. It was informed by numerous prominent regional electric-industry officials who were interviewed for it. It builds on many existing technologies, policies, trends and institutions.

And, the call for thinking and working across energy boundaries resonates, despite many inherent challenges.


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