Powering Strong Communities

Finding and Defining a Path to Change

The electric grid is getting pushed to an ever-closer, fast transition to a “grid of the future.” What exactly this future grid entails, however, remains open for interpretation. Whether that means a grid completely reliant on clean energy sources, or that is even more distributed and manages a high portion of variable, customer-sited resources; is prepared for significant new demand from electrification; or transformed to be hardened against extreme events. Whatever the vision, it is clear that how utilities will manage the electric supply and demand will change.

Utilities are where the rubber meets the road in adapting to the implications of these changes. For some, a changing supply has necessitated beginning to conduct or rethinking their approach to developing integrated resource plans. For others, it will mean understanding how to derive the most benefit from energy storage. We are at an intersection of being both indifferent to particular technologies and the key players to make decisions about which technologies to include in our all-of-the above strategies.

As the power supply is changing, the customer demand landscape is shifting in terms of what need they have for electricity and when, but also in their expectations in interacting with their utility. New players are entering the electricity market — whether the myriad solar developers or companies associated with home electrification — and might be presenting an alternate reality or expectation for your customers about their electric use. These entities can confuse the messaging about the real, practical challenges in shifting the electric supply, which puts utilities on the defensive regarding why the plan might not match with expectations.

The energy transition can be a flashpoint in community conversations, especially as the topic has become increasingly political. It is up to public power utilities to be responsive and offer their expertise, along with data and practical solutions, that recognize the varying interests across the community. As stakeholders with specific interests share their vision for what the grid of the future should be, the message from utilities should reflect where there is a common vision and where the viable paths are. For example, one proposed solution from some groups is that being able to harness more intermittent generation is a matter of building more transmission. Those in the electric sector know that the decisions about where to build new transmission — and how much it will actually contribute to helping better balance supply and demand — depends on a range of factors that change from year to year.

As utilities are in the middle of making sense of how to transition to a different energy mix, demand is rapidly changing as electrification picks up. Policies to transition to a cleaner energy mix are often on an aggressive timeline, yet electric vehicle sales have outpaced initial forecasts. While EVs often bring welcome new load, they hasten the need to understand the associated new usage patterns and what can effectively adjust customer behavior to avoid overloading transformers, which could compound the supply chain crisis.  

Although there are many challenges ahead, there are also many solutions and people looking to help. This issue of Public Power magazine aims to highlight the suite of issues and present how public power utilities are addressing and adapting to change.