6 tech-driven factors will help make a truly modern grid

Ronny Sandoval

Improving our electricity system – using technology available today – could be the single largest opportunity we have to fight climate change.

Our grid was built over a century ago by different companies, cities and co-ops. Pieces of it are owned and run by a dizzying web of stakeholders, with different visions of what a “modern grid” looks like.

In our report, “Grid Modernization: The foundation for climate change progress” [PDF], we outline the six key categories that make up a sustainable strategy for modernizing our grid.

All of them are connected, either physically or digitally, or by legislation, regulation or management. If each is executed well, the process will yield the best, most reliable, most affordable and cleanest electricity system.

1. Sensing and monitoring for enhanced system awareness

Technology has already significantly increased the grid’s efficiency, and future advances hold remarkable promise to make it even cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Advanced sensors throughout our energy system make outages easier to identify and help utilities respond faster to disasters, from wildfires to hurricanes.

2. Intelligent integration of diverse distributed resources

Residential rooftop solar is booming and large, utility-scale solar projects are increasing, too. How new, clean and distributed resources are integrated into the grid will not only determine how efficiently they work, but also how satisfied customers will be with their investments. Solar isn’t the only new resource grid operators are managing. Some software solutions, like demand response services, can provide virtual energy by quickly adjusting demand in response to supply.

3. Maximizing the role of renewable energy

Yesterday’s grid was dirtier, but it sure was simpler. Technologies like wind, solar and energy storage (batteries) are becoming more and more affordable, but they need to be managed differently than coal or gas power plants. This shift will require new infrastructure, policies and even market structures that value the benefits these resources bring to the system.

4. Electrification of transportation systems

Transportation is the largest contributor to our carbon budget. The electrification of America’s automobile fleet could result in significant carbon reductions if the transition is managed correctly. This move includes using more renewable energy to charge cars. But it also includes new charging infrastructure and pricing options for customers that incentivize charging when it is powered by clean resources.

5. Access to actionable energy data

In today’s digital world, customers need secure and simple access to their energy data and the ability to share it with companies that can help them maximize their energy dollars [PDF]. Luckily, there are models out there that show how to open access to this critical information while protecting customer privacy.

6. Efficient transmission and distribution management

The less energy lost on its way to customers, the less energy has to be generated in the first place. And the more we ask of our grid, the better the transmission and distribution system needs to be. Billions of dollars [PDF] are already earmarked for scheduled improvements and maintenance to our aging energy system. These efforts should be planned in conjunction with other critical areas to leverage private and public investments.

We need all 6 pieces working together

Each of these six categories is critical – we need grid managers, utility executives, regulators and other stakeholders to take this broad view of the modern grid to make progress on climate. We already have the technology to make it work.

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