“What appliances will you be using?” asked the young man. We were relocating from Salt Lake City to an impoverished part of Senegal, West Africa. The local utility company's representative wanted to know what we’d be running to ensure they could provide us with enough electricity. I had never been asked such a question before. But since we were relatively affluent new customers, the power company needed to know how our usage would impact its infrastructure and energy generation. After enduring regular power outages, we soon learned what it is like to live with a fragile and unreliable electricity infrastructure. What’s more, many residents couldn’t even afford the electricity and had to do without.
As consumers in the United States, we just flip a switch to turn on the AC, use our dryer or reheat something in the microwave — often concurrently — without giving it another thought. We expect our utility to deliver the electricity we need on demand: no exceptions. Our power companies use a complex logistical system to handle everyone’s demand on the grid, especially during “peak” use, generally at about 6 pm.
In 2018, we face a rapidly aging and unprofitable fleet of coal-fired electrical plants, just as technological advances in renewable energy sources are causing rapid price declines for clean electricity generation. Solar farms in the United States can produce electricity for less than 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than the subsidized coal-generated electricity that we produce and consume in Utah.
The transition to renewable energy is inevitable. And it is well on its way already: Just in the last few weeks, Google and Apple both announced they are powering their operations by 100 percent renewable energy. Many municipalities, including Salt Lake City, Park City, Summit County and Moab, will move to 100 percent renewable within the next 15 years.
Not so fast, though. To move to a world that is truly powered by renewable energy, local utility companies must face the challenge of intermittent power generation associated with these resources.
Fortunately, solutions already exist that will make our grid more reliable and resilient and less prone to hacking. One such solution is energy storage. Storage is not a sufficient condition for transitioning to full renewable energy, but a necessary condition. Adequate storage coupled with large solar farms (“utility-scale solar”) can overcome peak electrical demand, improve grid resilience and improve its quality by regulating frequency and voltage. Because of falling prices, storage is becoming more common in the United States. California recently halted an expensive new gas plant in favor of deploying storage in its place. An Arizona utility recently invested in a solar-power and battery-storage project specifically to serve capacity for peak hours. The state of New York has a goal of installing a whopping 1,500 megawatts of storage by 2025. Other countries are doing the same. Tesla installed 100 megawatts in Southern Australia just a few months ago.
As Rocky Mountain Power prepares for its next planning cycle, it must include not only renewable energy, but also storage. Existing technology coupled with a mindset focused on problem-solving and innovation can get us there sooner than Utahns realize.5 comments on this story
State legislatures must play their role too. Because most utilities, like Rocky Mountain Power, are overseen by state governments, Utah lawmakers need to foster and mandate storage; we must urge our lawmakers to do so.
We are lucky to live in a place where we have sufficient, reliable and affordable electricity. But if we are to maintain the standards we’ve come to expect and ensure resiliency, our power company and our Legislature must plan for the future, and that means investing in renewable energy and energy storage.