Jules Kortenhorst, Lena Hansen and James Mandel, RMI
March 14, 2014 | 3 Comments
An entirely off-grid system would only become a reality if customers are not given an opportunity to participate, through new business models, in the business of generating, storing, and balancing electricity needs. Or if customers’ requirements, including for resilience and clean energy, are not being met by their central provider. That’s a future that would be suboptimal for all.
Why PPotential Defection Matters — Customer Choice and Empowerment
But if a grid-defected future is so suboptimal, why then is it so important to understand the economics of grid defection?
First, there is strikingly little quantitative analysis to inform the discussion. It’s critical to know the facts and underlying analytics to support productive conversations about how to move forward in the face of powerful trends and a dramatically shifting electricity landscape.
Second, the option to defect — whether or not it is ultimately exercised in part or in full — adds urgency for utility business models and regulations to change and identifies when scaled solutions that properly value distributed investments need to be in place. Empowered customers, ones with the ability to choose how they purchase, generate, store, and/or use electricity, have a more important seat at the electricity table. That empowered customer is a force of change.
Customers, utilities, grid operators, regulators, and technology providers must work together to develop business models that stave off the need or even desire for customer grid defection. The electricity system needs to give customers an opportunity to transact with the grid in a way that meets their desires (for clean, reliable, affordable electricity) and be compensated for any value they are able to bring to the system at large (through contributions to peak shaving, investing in local reserve supply through distributed storage, through distributed generation that can supply feeder-level power needs, and others).
Going Beyond the Either/Or of Grid-connected or Grid-defected
We need not face an electricity future with an either/or dichotomy of two extremes: total utility/centralized dependence and total defection/independence. There exists another path, one in which central and distributed resources are complementary, connected and supported by a nimble grid. That’s why RMI’s high-renewables (80 percent) Transform scenario in Reinventing Fire envisions a future and a grid powered by equal parts distributed and centrally generated renewables.
In such a future, the utility evolves to play a critical coordination and stewardship role, one that helps balance various distributed resources and supports them with low-cost central generation. Customers, utilities, regulators, and technology providers have an urgent need to shape this future, or we could in fact run the risk of the defected extreme.
A Commitment to Collaboratively Forging Solutions
Disruptive challenges-cum-opportunities won’t go away. Distributed solar PV is scaling rapidly. Battery costs are declining, with breakthrough innovation accelerating. And third-party service providers are making these systems financially and logistically accessible to bigger pools of customers. RMI’s historic and current activities on energy efficiency, balance of system solar cost reduction, system financing innovations, and storage integration have helped propel the economics of distributed resources forward. An electricity future that includes significantly higher percentages of distributed renewables offers many benefits. But to access those benefits, the entire electricity system must evolve…with utilities and the grid, not in spite of them or without them.
That’s why RMI is committed to collaboratively forging solutions. To achieve the optimal energy future, our Electricity Innovation Lab (e-Lab), for example, brings together utilities, regulators, NGOs, technology providers, and other stakeholders to collaborate on practical solutions to the challenges today’s electricity system faces. In addition, we work hand-in-hand with these and other stakeholders on key components of an integrated solution through direct engagement. Our work on these solutions will be the focus of a forthcoming blog.
This article was originally published on RMI and was republished with permission.
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