It’s a common refrain among alternative energy and electric vehicle detractors: The electric grid can’t handle an influx of intermittent power sources and energy-hungry EVs, even with the growth of smart grid technologies.
But with some policy tweaks, the grid will be able to take whatever we throw at it, according to a new MIT study. Whether we have the political will to make these changes is questionable, but here’s what needs to be done:
Change the way we pay for energy
Utilities currently charge customers based on how much energy they use, even though costs involved to distribute power are largely fixed. As a result, utilities resist distributed generation schemes (i.e. rooftop solar panels) in favor of massive solar installations that are expensive and take years to build. A customer who generates power via a rooftop solar panel saves on both the energy generation and distribution charges (since they are are bundled together as one cost), but the utility only saves on the generation charge, because the distribution charge remains the same. The solution is simple: Charge customers separately for the fixed distribution cost, and utilities have no reason to oppose distributed generation, which can relieve pressure on the grid.
Make full use of smart meters
Utilities across the U.S. have begun to install smart meters, electrical power meters that let users track energy consumption and let utilities monitor real-time energy use–and price it accordingly. But utilities still haven’t figured out how to effectively offer feedback to customers on their energy use. Customers should be able to know that they’re using more energy than they did yesterday, or that they’re running their dishwasher at a peak time. This is key to acclimating the grid to renewables and EVs. If a consumer knows that energy prices are high at a certain time of day (because of, say, a lack of available solar power), they may hold off on running the dishwasher until later, when prices are lower and the local utility has more spare capacity. The smart meter technology is largely there–now the utilities need to make full use of it.
Streamline transmission line decisions
Renewable energy sites are often in the middle of nowhere–think solar installations in the desert or wind turbines in the open spaces of the Midwest. Extensive networks of transmission lines are required to bring that power from where it is to the cities that need it. But the process of building transmission lines is complex. When the lines cross state boundaries, each state makes it own decisions about where they go. No central authority is involved. “There are many people who can say no, and nobody who can say yes,” explains Richard Schmalensee, codirector of the study, in a statement. “That’s strategically untenable, especially since some of these authorities would have little incentive ever to say yes.”
Instead, MIT recommends that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have the authority to make decisions–or at least have the capability to resolve disputes that come up. This will strengthen the grid’s ability to handle renewables, and encourage companies to built out more renewable energy plants, since they will know that transmission line politics won’t get in the way.
As smart meters begin to gather more data on users and as the grid becomes increasingly connected, the risk of a dangerous cyberattack goes up. It’s an inconvenience if a virus gets into your personal computer, but it’s dangerous if a hacker commandeers the power grid. There’s no central authority to deal with grid security right now, so MIT recommends that an agency like the Department of Homeland Security be given the power to take care of it.
As long as there isn’t a sudden surge in the number of EVs on the road (wouldn’t that be a good problem to have), the grid should be fine. Judging by recent events, there won’t be an explosion in EV sales anytime soon.