Distributed Energy Resources
Energy Storage

Customer grid interaction 'past the point of being a niche market'

Like What You Are Reading?

Please take a few minutes to let us know what type of industry news and information is most meaningful to you, what topics you’re interested in, and how you prefer to access this information.

There are a number of ways that residential customers can interact with the electric grid these days including Tesla's Powerwall storage battery, advanced metering infrastructure-enabled residential demand response and smart phone-enabled Nest thermostats. So is this a fundamental shift or a niche market?

For Malcolm Woolf, a senior vice president at the Advanced Energy Economy, "we're past the point of it being a niche market."

He made his comments on June 7 at the Energy Bar Association's 2016 annual meeting and conference in Washington, D.C. Woolf was one of several panelists on a panel entitled, "Tomorrow's Grid is Here: Technical, Financial, Policy and Legal Ramifications."

"You can buy Nest thermostats and solar panels at Home Depot, at the mall. Customers are increasingly engaging with this," Woolf said.

"I wish we knew what our customers are going to want five years from now," said Robert Stewart, manager of smart grid and technology at investor-owned utility Pepco Holdings, who also participated on the panel.

"I think with some of these technologies I get more excited about them than the customers do," he added.

"We haven't really fully exposed the customer to what some of the benefits of some of these things are, so I think there's a little bit of work to be done," Stewart said. "It's not as simple as just connecting things up."

The Pepco official also said that as the U.S. moves to a more transactive grid, "all of these things are going to have to operate in concert with each other. All of the different microgrids and the variable loads that those microgrids are seeing are going to have to adapt to what those loads are," Stewart told the EBA conference.

There are going to have to be "a whole bunch of different things that are going to have to happen in order to manage this transactive grid," the Pepco executive said.

Also in the mix is the distribution system operator, which is responsible for maintaining reliable electric service "to all of the customers while all of this is going on," Stewart said. The distribution system operators "are going to have their hands full at making sure that they have visibility and the ability to turn some of these different loads on and off."

Meanwhile, panelists gave their thoughts on the role for the federal government and state governments as the utility business model evolves and what the panelists see as policy issues that need to be resolved.

From his point of view, Woolf said this is "a really big challenge that the industry and government hasn't woken up to yet."

He said that electricity is a public good, "yet the system we've got is going through a huge transformation and from my perspective, there's no one at the helm."

Utilities "are doing exactly what they're supposed to do based on historic incentives, but those may not be right for what we want today."

He said the federal government is largely deferring to the states, but the states "really don't have the capacity to drive this. They don't know what they want."

Woolf said that there is "really an opportunity for us to think about what kind of grid do we want? Do we want it to be publicly owned? Do we want it to be privately owned? How flexible? How much are we going to incentivize DG?"

He said that with the exception of a few states including New York, "I don't think those conversations are going on. I think we really need to have a conversation to figure out where do we want to get to? What are the goals that we want and how do we get there? And I don't think we have the right infrastructure to even have those conversations."

One role for government would be to jumpstart those conversations, Woolf said.