Utilities know better than anyone that getting to our goals of 100% carbon-free energy will require diligent planning, preparation and investment.
Utilities of the future will look far different than today with new power demands from electric vehicles, the addition of new, largely renewable power resources and integration of energy storage systems even in residential neighborhoods that could one day serve as microgrids providing power from interconnected battery energy storage systems.
A look at developments in Florida can be instructive to gain a sense of what could happen in many regions.
Solar in the Sunshine State
Utilities in the Southeast and elsewhere are making major investments in utility-scale solar, often paired with grid-scale battery storage. Solar is Florida’s primary renewable energy option at the moment, yet it faces a daunting challenge. For utility-scale solar facilities averaging 74.5 MW, about 500 acres of land is required. This compares to about 10-15 acres for the footprint of a combined cycle or reciprocating engine gas facility producing an equivalent amount of power.
It is no secret that undeveloped land in Florida is very expensive and usable land is quickly being snapped up. This is exacerbated by the acreage of wetlands and other environmentally protected areas in Florida. Regions throughout Florida will soon reach saturation points where new solar arrays are simply not feasible due to land constraints.
Electric Vehicles Will Drive System Upgrades
The other wild card as utilities race toward the future is how fast electric vehicles are adopted by the driving public. This rate of adoption will dictate the pace of capital investments utilities must make in their distribution systems.
According to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), there are currently just over 1 million EVs on the road in the U.S. currently and the electrical infrastructure needed for charging is generally able to handle demands. However, we are nearing a tipping point. In many areas of Florida, significant investment will be needed in both power capacity and system intelligence as more and more EVs are parked in residential driveways.
Not surprisingly, EVs are more prevalent in affluent areas of Florida, creating pocketed zones of higher power demand driven by the need for charging capacity. Because system upgrades are typically planned on a broader scale, utilities in Florida and elsewhere are exploring other options, such as a buildout of charging infrastructure in conjunction with the rollout of 5G radios and telecommunications equipment on utility poles. Upgrades to localized power distribution infrastructure required by the power needs of 5G equipment can be tailored to also accommodate the need for more EV charging stations. All this has tremendous potential for enhanced revenue opportunities for utilities.
Consumers Become Prosumers
In the very near future, we could begin utilizing the EVs sitting in our garages or driveways as mini battery packs. In hurricane-prone Florida, this creates a number of obvious benefits. Though vehicle-to-grid technology is not currently standard equipment on EVs, this could change in the near future when we could see whole neighborhoods turning to the batteries in their fleets of EVs as emergency power sources in the interim until grid power is restored.
Austin SHINES, a pilot test by Austin Energy, is exploring the concept of giving EV drivers and those who have installed battery storage systems in their homes in Austin, Texas, incentives if they agree to give permission to pull from those resources during times of high demand. This next-wave development will require equipment that controls power flow and corrects for power quality but could essentially turn every house into a microgrid.
Microgrids Likely to Become More Prevalent
Microgrid control technologies are likely to open the door to increased system resilience, particularly in hurricane-prone Florida and the Southeast as a whole. As more and more microgrids are built at critical facilities like hospitals and military bases, technologies that can serve as the backbone for universal microgrid system controller will open the door for much more investment in this area.
With major players like Tesla willing to jump into this arena and invest billions, it points to the potential opportunity. Microgrids are today prohibitively expensive but if the control technology advances, then the whole model of the power grid changes for everyone.
The utility industry has historically battled perceptions of being slow to change but that will soon be a thing of the past as they inevitably integrate renewables, energy storage systems, EVs and microgrids. Each utility will have its own unique set of challenges but those that see these as opportunities will become a utility of the future built to last with a low-cost, sustainable system that maintains the incredible level of service reliability we all have come to take for granted.
Burns & McDonnell serves every sector of the power industry.