The new convergence: Smart grid, efficiency, and renewables

by Josh Seidenfeld, MEM/MBA Class of 2015 and Dan Vermeer, Executive Director of EDGE

For all the strident debates about energy in American politics (e.g. fracking, drilling on public lands, government incentives, etc.), no one disagrees that innovation will be critical in creating a better energy future.  And North Carolina and Duke are well-positioned to play an important role in building our 21st century infrastructure.

In its new report “The Networked Energy Web,” the Center For American Progress describes a rapidly evolving network-based model of electricity production, distribution and use. This new model is characterized by distributed generation, grid integration of renewable energy sources, and smart grid applications such as demand response. The report details the potential benefits and dangers of this new electrical system and proposes policy mechanisms to stimulate its growth and stem its potential negative effects.

This networked, intelligent model thrives on multidirectional data flows and supplants the Edison-era electric grid’s linear model, which utilized the bare minimum of communication needed to facilitate reliable power generation, transmission and use. Such an outgrowth from an old, eminently reliable, linear system to a brave new network mirrors previous decades’ transformations in telecom, and the authors use lessons from the internet revolution and the evolution from wired to wireless telecom to inform their outlook and recommendations.

Just as the Edison-era grid’s power generation was governed by four traditional objectives – that access to energy be universal, affordable, reliable, and safe – the authors propose new pillars on which the networked energy web be built. They recommend it be:

  • Clean: just as the old grid’s engineering reflected the value of universal access prized by the society that built it, the new grid should reflect our society’s values of health and technological progress by embracing “clean” approaches such as renewable generation and energy efficiency.
  • Transparent: to make the most of the data gathered by the networked grid, that data must be made accessible to businesses and NGOs capable of using it to improve our energy system.
  • Private: since such transparency brings threats to privacy, individuals’ privacy must be rigorously protected.
  • Secure: since a networked energy system is vulnerable to cyberattacks, safeguarding its security is paramount

To achieve these objectives, the authors recommend policy changes at federal and state levels of government, noting that many of the policies that enabled the information and wireless transformations were enacted by a deeply divided Clinton/Gingrich government not unlike that currently in power.

Rather than offering new policy tools, the authors point out what has been successful and ask for more of it. Most prominent among the authors’ favored policy tools: boosting predictability in energy markets via state-level RES and CLEAN contracts; federal procurement policies to promote the networked grid; promotion of on-bill EE financing; accelerated FERC planning and siting of high voltage transmission; mandates for increased energy data disclosure and ownership/responsibility for energy data; state mandates of utility data security; and microgrids and other decentralization measures to enhance data security.

North Carolina is playing a critical role in building this next generation infrastructure.  For example, a recent study by Duke University’s Center for Globalization, Governance, and Competitiveness found that North Carolina’s Research Triangle region has a unique cluster of smart grid firms, along with the supporting assets needed to make the industry flourish – specialized R&D centers, world-class universities, efficiency and renewable energy firms, and supportive government and non-profit groups.

To contribute to the growth of this regional energy hotspot, Duke University is expanding its energy-related educational and research offerings, and aligning its efforts through the Duke University Energy Initiative.  The initiative provides a platform for Duke’s various schools (business, engineering, environment, public policy) to create a powerful inter-disciplinary approach to solving energy challenges.

We have a long way to go in transforming our energy infrastructure for 21st century demands, but seeing a range of institutions work together to create a regional innovation hub for smart energy is a source of real optimism.

 

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