The speed of disruptive innovation in the electricity sector has been outpacing regulatory and utility business model reform, which is why they now sometimes feel in conflict. That disruptive innovation is only accelerating. RMI’s recent report,The Economics of Grid Defection: When and where distributed solar generation plus storage competes with traditional utility service, sets a timeline for utilities, regulators, and others to get ahead of the curve and shift from reactive to proactive approaches. Becoming proactive and deliberate about the electricity system's transformation, and doing so ahead of any fundamental shifts in customer economics, would enable us to optimize the grid and make distributed technologies the integral and valuable piece we believe they can and should be.
When RMI issued The Economics of Grid Defection three weeks ago, our intent was to stretch the conversation among electricity system stakeholders by looking out far enough in the future to discern a point where the rules of the system change in a fundamental way. We used the best available facts to explore when and where fully off-grid solar-plus-battery systems could become cheaper than grid-purchased electricity in the U.S., thus challenging the way the current electricity system operates. Those systems, in fact, don’t even need to go fully off grid. The much less extreme but perhaps far more likely scenario would be grid-connected systems, which could be just as or even more challenging for electricity system operation and utility business models.
The takeaway is this: even under the fully off-grid scenarios we modeled, we have about 10 years—give or take a few—to really solve our electricity business model issues here in the continental U.S. before they begin compounding dramatically. The analysis also suggests we should carefully read the “postcards from the future” being sent from Hawaii today, and take much more interest in how that situation plays out as a harbinger of things to come.
As an institute with a mission to think ahead in the interest of society, consider this a public service message that these issues will crescendo to a point of consequence requiring dramatic and widespread changes well within current planning horizons. For those who are serious about finding solutions, this is also a call to action and a commitment to partnership.
At RMI, much as we pioneered the concepts of the “negawatt,” the “deep retrofit,” and the “hypercar,” we have also defined what it means to be a “think-and-do tank.” It is not enough to do smart analysis. The solutions we champion must be practically tested, broken, fixed, refined, iterated, and ultimately adopted at scale for us to feel satisfied with our work. Partnering with leading companies and institutions is how we prove an alternative path is possible to a world that is clean, prosperous, and secure.
The Highly Distributed Electricity System of the Future
The Transform scenario of our Reinventing Fire analysis, the most preferable outcome of the electricity futures we have examined, described a future for the U.S. electricity system in which 80 percent of electricity is supplied from renewable sources by 2050, with about half of that renewable supply coming from distributed resources. Given the current grid is only a few percent distributed and less than 13 percent renewable (counting a generous allotment of hydropower), we have quite a ways to go.
Achieving that end state requires many changes. Some of those changes already have momentum and likely won’t require intervention, but others will need a kick start or some other form of “strategic acupuncture” encouragement. At RMI, we would certainly prefer that a transition of this scale be orderly and proactive, because having disruption rock the boat of the current system unprepared would undoubtedly leave some combination of shareholders, ratepayers, and taxpayers smarting.
As we look at the future electricity system—the one we need to be building today—we see five critical differences from the present system. Redesigning our regulatory and market models should reflect these emergent needs.
This future still prominently features a robust wires network; defection from the grid would be suboptimal for a number of reasons. We would assert that everyone is better off if we create a future network that is easier to opt in to, rather than opt out of via the risk of defection.
Moreover, distributed resources — the same ones that could but needn’t threaten defection — have the potential to become a primary tool in the planning and management of grid-based distribution systems. Already, we are working with utilities and regulators in several parts of the country in exploring new ways to incentivize electricity distribution companies to take full advantage of distributed resources to reduce distribution system costs, increase resilience, and meet specialized customer needs. Good regulation will reveal value and facilitate transactions that tap that value, thereby increasing the benefit of distributed resources for all.