MIT: With Some Changes, The U.S. Electric Grid Can Handle Influx of Sustainable Energy

The electricity grid is probably not the sexiest topic around, but it's a key component of the future of sustainable energy. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has carried out a study that concluded that the grid is most likely up to the challenge of new, intermittent forms of energy, such as solar and wind, as their contribution to the network grows over the next 20 years. The study also included in its forecast the influx of electric and hybrid vehicles that require frequent charging.

The report was commissioned by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and carried out by a panel of 13 faculty members from MIT and one from Harvard University. 10 graduate students and an advisory panel of 19 leaders from academia, industry and government also participated.

Richard Schmalensee, Howard W. Johnson Professor of Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-chair of the study, said one of the reasons to carry out the study was the contrasting rhetoric about the U.S. power grid. Some people say it’s on the brink of a widespread failure while others claim that new technology could provide new opportunities.

“The most important broad finding was that both of these are false,” Schmalensee says. While the grid is not in any imminent danger, he says, “the current regulatory framework, largely established in the 1930s, is mismatched to today’s grid.” He added current regulations are not capable of giving the country the grid of the future, one that by 2030 “will support a range of new technologies and consumer services that will be essential for a strong and competitive U.S. economy.”

For that reason the study recommends a series of changes in the regulatory environment designed to facilitate and exploit technological innovation. These include effective and enhanced federal authority over decisions on the routing of new interstate transmission lines. The report highlights this is particularly necessary in the cases of solar or wind farms located far from where that power is to be used, requiring long-distance transmission lines to be built across multiple regulatory jurisdictions.

“It is a real issue, a chicken-and-egg problem,” said John Kassakian, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT and the study’s other co-chair. “Nobody’s going to build these new renewable energy plants unless they know there will be transmission lines to get the power to load centers. And nobody’s going to build transmission lines unless the difficulty of siting lines across multiple jurisdictions is eased.”

The current situation is that there is no centralized authority in cases when new transmission lines cross state boundaries. Therefore each state involved as well as federal agencies when federal lands are crossed are free to make their own decisions about permission for the siting of the lines.

“There are many people who can say no, and nobody who can say yes,” Schmalensee explained. “That’s strategically untenable, especially since some of these authorities would have little incentive ever to say yes.”

The report recommends that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) either be given the authority to make decisions in such cases, or be designated as the “backstop” authority in cases where there are disputes.

The study also makes suggestions as how customers pay for the grid’s restructuring and cybersecurity. The more thoroughly the grid is interconnected, and the more smart meters are added to gather data about usage patterns, the greater the risk of security breaches or cyberattacks on the system. Currently no agency has responsibility and authority for the entire grid. The report mentions the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a possible agency to be in charge of security, but highlights that “thorny issues” related to authority over local distribution systems would need to be resolved. In addition, the report notes, it will be important to develop rules and systems to maintain the privacy of data on customers’ electricity usage.

Data sharing is another important priority, especially data collected as a result of federal investments through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Kassakian said the government “spent a lot of money on pilot programs and experiments, and installations of a lot of new equipment that can improve the efficiency and reliability of the grid and the management of demand.” But more cooperation and communication about the results of those programs are necessary to get the benefits, he added. Widespread sharing of data from real-time monitoring of the grid could help prevent some failures before they happen.

As to electric vehicles, the study noted their growth is likely to be slow enough and widely distributed enough to create any significant strain on the grid. However, it warned that a sudden influx of EVs charging at night could necessitate bigger transformers or cooling systems, while charging them at the end of the work day could significantly increase peak demand and thus the need for new capacity.
The report urges utilities to spend more on research and development so they can make effective use of new technologies for monitoring and controlling the grid, and on customer response to pricing policies or incentives.

Image credit: MIT