While attending the CAISO Stakeholder Symposium last week I had rush of questions, not all interconnected, about how we manage the transition to the new energy future. I saw two very different views about how the grid might be managed–how will this be resolved? How do we consider path dependence in choosing supporting and “bridge” resources? How do we provide differential reliability to customers? How do we allow utilities to invest beyond the meter?
Jesse Knight, former CPUC Commissioner and now chairman at SDG&E and SCG, described energy utilities as the “last monopoly” in the face of a rapidly changing economic landscape. (Water utilities may have something to say about that.) SDG&E is ahead of the other utilities in recognizing the rise of the decentralized peer-to-peer economy. On the other hand, Clark Gellings from EPRI described a world in which the transmission operator would have to see “millions” of nodes, both loads and small generators, to operate a robust network. This view is consistent with the continued central management implied by the utility distribution planners at the CPUC’s distribution planning OIR workshop. At the end of the symposium, 3 of the 4 panelist said that the electricity system would be unrecognizable to Thomas Edison. I wonder if Alexander Graham Bell would recognize our telecommunications system?
One question posed to the first “townhall” panel asked what role natural gas would have in the transition to more renewables. I am not aware of any studies conducted on whether and how choices about generation technology today commits us to decisions in the future. Path dependence is an oft overlooked aspect of planning. We can’t make decisions independent of how we chose in the past. That’s why it’s so difficult to move away from fossil fuel dependence now–we committed to it decades ago. We shouldn’t ignore path dependence going forward. Building gas plants now may commit us to using gas for decades until the financial investments are recovered. We may be able to buy our way out through stranded asset payments, but we learned once before that wasn’t a particularly attractive approach. Using forethought and incorporating flexibility requires careful planning.
And along those lines in our breakout session, another question was posed about how to resolve the looming threat of “overgeneration” from renewables, particularly solar. Much of the problem might be resolved by charging EVs during the day, but it’s unlikely that a sizable number of plug-in hybrids and BEVs will be on the road before the mid-2020s. So the question becomes should we invest in gas-fired generation or battery or pumped storage, both of which have 20-30 year economic lives, or try to find other shorter lived transitions including curtailment contracts or demand response technologies until EVs arrive on the scene? It might even be cost effective to provide subsidies to accelerate adoption of EVs so as to avoid long-lived investments that may become prematurely obsolete.
Pricing for differential reliability among customers also came up. Often ignored in the reliability debate at the CAISO is that the vast majority of outages are at the distribution level. We appear to be overinvested in transmission and generation reliability at the expense of maintaining the integrity of the local grid. We could have system reliability prices that reflect costs of providing flexible service to follow on-site renewable generation. However the utilities already recover most of the capital costs of providing those services through rate of return regulation. The market prices are suppressed (as they are in the real time market where the IOUs dump excess power) so we can’t expect to see good price signals, yet.
Several people talked about partnerships with the utilities in investing in equipment beyond the meter. But the question is will a utility be willing to facilitate such investments if they degrade the value of its current investment in the grid? Fiduciary responsibility under traditional return on capital regulation says only if the cost of the new technology is higher so as to generate higher returns than the current grid investment. That doesn’t sound like a popular recipe for a new energy future. Instead, we need to come up with creative means of utility shareholders participating in the new marketplace without forcing them down the old regulatory path.
Margaret Jolly from ConEd noted that the stakeholders were holding conversations on the new future but “the customer was not in the room.” Community, political and business leaders who know how electricity is used were not highly evident, and certainly didn’t make any significant statements. I’ve written before about offering more rate options to customers. I wanted to hear more from Ellen Struck about the Pecan Street study, but her comments focused on the industry situation, not customers’ behaviors and choices.