Let’s take a moment to look at some of the factors driving utilities to renewable energy sources: the existing infrastructure is aging, consumer demand for green energy is increasing, government regulators are pressuring, oil prices are rising as global reserves are depleting, and the planet is suffering. Apparently those haven’t been enough reasons for utilities to really make renewable energy a lasting priority.
That’s why we called our Viewpoint discussion with Dirk Mahling, the CIO of Seattle City Light, just that: “Making Renewable Energy a Lasting Priority.” It begs the question though why we even had to ask, and why in 2013 utilities don’t already have their foot down on the gas (of their electric car obviously, since we’re being green here)? Well, Mahling said one thing that seemed to spell out exactly why utilities are, and should be, concerned: “How do you bring renewable energy into the mix and keep energy prices low? There is no single answer to it.”
Does that sound troubling to anyone else? It’s a valid question and a good excuse for utilities to be skeptical overall, because even in the cases where green energy has been pervasive (Mahling points out Germany, which he says has windmills all across the country and solar farms every 15 to 20 miles), the price of energy has become cost prohibitive. Global leaders are having serious discussions over how to finance as Mahling claims more and more consumers struggle to pay their energy bills.
Solyndra and Q-Cells, as Mahling says, are just two examples in which the market has sorted things out and displayed all the signs of a bubble, i.e. not a smart approach. But in the case of Mahling’s company Seattle City Light, they’ve seen some dramatic success as far back as 1924 when they began supplying hydroelectric power through the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. To this day, hydroelectric power makes up over 90 percent of their fuel mix, so clearly there is a way for utilities to prioritize clean energy and stay solvent.
Now the solution pushing forward has been Smart Grid, which can integrate green technologies into the grid in all the ways utilities need, but the concern however is around investment in new technology. Mahling’s thought is to make solar PV arrays something that can come directly from the consumer (You may recall that this is a model spelled out by Harriet Tregoning in regards to building a smart city).
Home PV arrays around the neighborhood could be built into micro grids and connected to the distribution grid, which as Mahling says would now need to run forward and backward in a model known as distributed generation.
Further, Mahling explained, “The Smart Grid can help to monitor the flows of electricity to make sure that distribution lines are not over taxed and to make sure that the standard for the utility has to hold 60 Hz voltage for distribution.” The added benefit is that this model also provides some additional resilience for the grid beyond the free fuel factor.
The ultimate question is this: “How much political and how much economic will is there to provide these upgrades either through grants or through tariffs?” That’s Mahling’s question, but it should be front of mind for every utility if renewables are to have a place in the future.
Hear more from Dirk Mahling in our Viewpoint, “Making Renewable Energy a Lasting Priority.”