Washington Needs a Master Plan to Prepare for the 2035 Energy Economy

Opinion

The energy system of 2035 will be distributed in nature with a variety of safe, clean generation technologies and load-smoothing technologies like battery storage.

The centralized spoke and wheel control system of today will give way to a more dynamic model that can react more quickly and efficiently to the changing needs of the electrical grid and those that connect to it. Additionally, customers will be able to choose the utility that provides them the best service and product offering.

The new utility model will see utilities focusing more on the generation and infrastructure needs of industrial users while taking on more of a service role in upgrading and maintaining the smaller volume needs of the residential market. This market will continue to see reduced energy delivery needs from the utility through a combination of conservation, more efficient appliances, and onsite generation such as smaller solar systems, sized appropriately to the energy needs of the residence, and electric vehicles.

As a result, the utility will be able to use smaller, more efficient electric distribution lines that incorporate super conductive technologies to support the residential market. This is quite a different from the role of utilities today.

The biggest challenge in all this will be overcoming our present understanding of energy generation and distribution. Generally, we try to fit new concepts and technologies neatly into our preexisting frameworks that have served us well historically. However, this constrains the full potential of these emerging disruptive energy technologies. As a result, it will take time and careful planning to intelligently transform our energy infrastructure to match the capabilities of these new technologies, as well as new challenges they bring, such as potential vulnerability to cyber attack.

Our company is trying to prepare itself for emerging energy markets by working with technology partners to better integrate of our products into our built environment, both mechanically and electrically. Presently, there is clearly a strong interest from the public in clean energy, but it is centered primarily on least-cost and return-on-investment comparisons against heavily subsidized fossil fuels—or just being a lucrative investment that feels good. As a result, the market is flooded with commodity solar photovoltaic modules with little true differentiation.

But we’re looking well beyond this, to a new market horizon, and to a time when the market can embrace differentiated products.

When I look at Washington state, and how it will embrace the new energy economy of 2035, my first thought is that we need to step back and carefully consider how we want this new energy economy to look. We should not make hasty decisions in response to past course of action (or lack thereof) that blind us to wiser long-term choices. We need to identify the key critical thinkers in energy and recruit them into energy leadership positions within our government to provide vision and guidance for the present and future.

In order for us to look forward and prepare for this energy future it is my belief that these critical leaders will need a balanced background in environmental sustainability, economic development, business management, and sustainable technology.

One of the key tasks is to prepare our state’s governmental agencies for the energy economy that is coming. Another task is to make absolutely certain that our state is doing all that it can to support clean technology innovation here in Washington to create local economic development, support local job creation, and support the critical relationship between manufacturing and institutions of higher learning in the sciences and engineering.

We have the capabilities to achieve this, but we need strong leadership with vision and commitment that can look forward based on the experiences of the past and plan for the future in a world with evolving technologies and challenges.

Washington state has great depth in science and engineering. If fostered, there’s no reason to think that we can’t succeed on this energy path to 2035. We just have to evaluate what we want to do going forward and then craft a long-term master plan that helps us make this important transition.

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.

Gary Shaver is President of Silicon Energy. Located in Washington and Minnesota, Silicon Energy offers customers durable, locally manufactured and environmentally friendly solar PV products. Follow @

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