Readying the Distributed Grid for the Big Energy Challenges of 2035

Opinion

Predicting the future in the energy business is difficult for five years, let alone 20 years. That said, we feel the “better bet” is a future energy system that will be a lot more distributed as compared to the largely centralized grid of today. There will be much more generation and storage at the individual customer level. Power will flow in both directions—to and from the grid—not just in one direction. As a result, we will need much more sophisticated digital controls, using monitoring and protection systems that will operate much smarter than the largely electro-mechanical devices of today.

While we believe this is where things are heading, a fully centralized grid isn’t going away anytime soon. Instead, it will gradually become more distributed, facilitating choices for customers in the process.

The biggest delivery challenge will be upgrading the distributed grid, or network, for two-way power flows. This won’t be like the one-direction radial systems that we currently have, so we will need to adapt, and it will be complex. A lot of intelligent control systems will be needed.

The major production challenge will be bringing down the cost curve for distributed generation and storage technologies. We’ve seen this happening with solar. But going forward, all energy sources will have to compete without subsidies. Storage and fuel cells still have a long way to go on the cost curve. We believe all this will get resolved, though; it’s just a question of when, not if.

So much of what we do in the coming years will be focused on storage—the biggest opportunity in the emerging energy economy. This is the Holy Grail, plain and simple, when you’re looking at how energy systems will work in 2035. So many distributed energy resources are intermittent in their production and as such storage technologies are critical to balancing generation and load in real time.

There’s so much that needs to happen over the next 20 years, but if I had to pick several essential items on my energy economy of the future to-do list, I’d say we absolutely have to have affordable storage, low-cost distributed generation systems, and a plug-and-play smart grid that helps facilitate all these devices working together and meeting customer needs.

At Edison International, we’re working towards this new energy future at both our regulated utility business and our competitive energy businesses.

At our utility, Southern California Edison, we’re spending our time and resources on distribution grid readiness. We have to get the grid ready to accommodate California’s new energy policies as well as the steady stream of clean technology breakthroughs.

On the competitive side of our business, our focus is on delivering low-cost distributed generation and cost-effective energy efficiency and demand response. We continue monitoring storage technology developments. And, we have already completed several combined solar panel and battery storage systems to reduce both energy costs and demand charges for large commercial customers. We do, however, recognize that subsidies are required for these systems today. Planning ahead, we want to remain technology agnostic, so we can continue to package solutions for customers.

I look at Washington State and feel that it should pay close attention to other states like New York, California, Minnesota, Colorado and Massachusetts—they’re all actively engaged in shaping the energy future.

But this is hardly an exclusive club. The energy environment that looms large in 2035 will be complex and challenging, and we’re going to need every great policy, process, program, innovation, idea, and initiative that we can lay our hands on in order to keep generating prosperity and productivity for communities everywhere.

Read the other pieces in this series looking at Washington State’s energy sector  in 2035 here. The essays were commissioned by the University of Washington Clean Energy Institute.

Ronald L. Litzinger is president of Edison Energy, the competitive businesses arm of Edison International. Follow @

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