Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Smart Grid Alternative Action

I read a fascinating paper at "Getting Smart About The Smart Grid" that brings an interdisciplinary approach to new developments in energy infrastructure.  I missed the paper's public debut at the Commonwealth Club last month due to schedule conflicts but this topic will only become more important in the future.

One of the paper's basic ideas is that a decentralized energy grid is more amenable to renewable energy installation.  Renewable power typically economizes at a lower scale than fossil fuel power sources.  I learned many years ago that anyone who claims that a renewable technology can scale up is barking up the wrong tree.  Hydroelectric and geothermal energy are significant baseload providers but even those sources are limited by the geographic footprint of their inputs.  In other words, Hoover Dam is already at its most efficient size and it isn't going to scale up.

Alternative voices like "Getting Smart" deserve traction.  The establishment approach from DOE's smart grid programs and other federal initiatives need input to make the next generation grid stronger.  DOE's approach is responsive to political pressures from dominant infrastructure builders.  This marginalizes the potential for renewable sources to contribute materially to the grid.  The government funded the Renewable and Distributed Systems Integration (RDSI) Program as a series of pilot studies under ARRA.  I believe it falls to the private sector to determine whether those pilot technologies are workable.

The finance community should track alternative voices.  Investing in DOE-backed technologies is the easy answer but disruptive innovation always comes from the fringes.  I would like to see some radical ideas for small-scale storage.  Community microgrids should ideally transform excess power from renewables into stored energy for use as a baseload during the off-peak hours when renewable sources are less reliable.  Storage is the key to changing the sine-wave appearance of renewable generation patterns into a steady-state source.  I look forward to seeing storage covered in Smart Grid News.