WNPR

New Technologies Challenge Old Assumptions About the Electric Grid

Apr 22, 2016

Credit Carlito2000 / Creative Commons

Power markets and utility regulators need to rethink the way they do business, as new technologies begin to change how we generate electricity.

Rooftop solar and stationary fuel cells are just some of the emerging technologies that are gaining commercial viability and challenging the way we think about the traditional electric grid. Now, homes and businesses, instead of being passive consumers of electricity transmitted from faraway power plants, can actually generate their own power.

"Because these energy sources essentially can provide and supply electricity right at the edge of the grid, how the power system works is starting to change," said Raanan Miller, executive director of the Utility of the Future Study. The project is housed at MIT, and is being backed by a number of stakeholders in the energy system, including Avangrid, the owners of the former United Illuminating in Connecticut.

One of the challenges the study is addressing: how to price these resources, known as distributed generation. Right now power markets are so complex that the retail cost of electricity bears only a loose relationship to the cost of producing and supplying it.

"And that's really a challenge for properly valuing distributed energy resources like rooftop solar," said researcher Jesse Jenkins, "or demand response where we might start to begin cutting back on our energy consumption at times when the grid is under stress, or electricity supplies are very costly."

As electricity begins to flow both ways on the grid, there are also security and reliability issues to resolve. The research for this project has been underway for two years, and the team expects to issue a report this fall. The ultimate aim, to provide an ideal model of how the grid can adapt most efficiently to these emerging technologies, and to inform smart choices for utilities and regulators.