Transform Utilities to Smooth the Way to a New Energy Future

Opinion

What will the energy system look like 20 years from now—in 2035? Well, it will certainly be less carbon intensive, more distributed, and more electric.

If you think about it, electric utilities right now are where the telecomm companies were in the 1980s. The telcos had a comfortable, regulated monopoly, and then a wave of innovation in the form of cellular and Internet technology came at them and disrupted their business model. Some adapted and some didn’t. That’s what we’re seeing now in the utilities industry. And how this turns out will have a tremendous impact on the energy economy of 2035.

Following this line of thinking, the biggest energy challenge we now face is in the institutional and regulatory areas. We need to ask ourselves how quickly these systems can adapt to new clean technology.

I don’t want to minimize the clean technology challenges we face in terms of boosting efficiencies and driving down the costs of solar and energy storage, but we won’t get the scale of deployment of these new clean energy technologies without changing some of the outdated legal and regulatory frameworks that govern utilities.

In addition to changing the regulatory structure for utilities, we must build support with policy makers to put a price on carbon. More regions and countries are taking this sensible approach and it represents a huge opportunity to reduce carbon emission and advance clean technology.

With the right price signals and regulatory framework, we can zero in on the investments that need to be made in our energy infrastructure and in innovative clean technology solutions. I like the way the University of Washington is already doing more research on new energy materials and advanced photovoltaics. And I’m confident that these breakthroughs will become economically viable alternatives that can successfully compete with fossil fuels.

There are other glimmers of light today as well. Power electronics, for example, hasn’t been a hot area for research, but now university departments focused on this equipment are starting to attract some of the best and brightest young minds we’ve got. This is a very good development for the future of our energy economy.

My company, 1Energy Systems, is trying to help today’s electric utilities prepare for this very different future. We’re working to make sure that software enables the electric grid of tomorrow. We envision a key role for software as it helps to manage and optimize the growing number of distributed energy sources. Part of the solution is to apply lessons from the IT industry and deploy software using open communications standards to orchestrate these assets and bring down costs.

We’re not the only ones working on the energy future in Washington state. Our higher education institutions are engines of innovation and they’re spinning off some great new ideas and technologies that will really matter as we head toward 2035. We need to keep investing in these institutions in order to successfully grapple with the energy issues that await us.

One of the best ways to do this is to establish and cultivate ecosystems in Washington state that include research-oriented institutions of higher education, companies, and customers.

I absolutely believe that we can move in this direction, because our state has clear competence and expertise in the clean energy sphere. We also have the software chops. And we have the necessary deep scientific resources. Mostly, though, we have people who can really see a clean, green and prosperous 21st century economy.

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.

Daniel Malarkey is Vice President of Business Development and Public Policy for 1Energy Systems, which provides software for grid-connected energy storage systems (ESS) and other electric energy assets. Follow @

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