Say Hello to the Grid

A new report from the National Surveys on Energy and Environment reveals that a majority of Americans (59%) responded “don’t know” when asked whether their state requires a set percentage of electricity to be generated renewably (via a renewable portfolio standard). And of the 41% who did answer the question, only half got it right – in other words, they were no more accurate than a coin flip.

Interestingly, according to the same survey, 74% of Americans agree that state governments should require a set portion of all electricity to come from renewable sources.  

Putting these statistics together, we get a strange picture: 74% support the idea of an RPS, but 80% have no idea their own state already has one.

Whether we like it or not, the power system remains a black box to most people. You flip a switch, and the lights go on; each month, the local utility sends you a bill. That’s about all many people know, or feel the need to know, about the electric grid.

This general lack of knowledge about electricity – how it is generated, how electricity markets work, what government regulations exist – suggests a tremendous need for education. As indicated by the National Surveys study, people tend to be positive about renewables and energy storage generally, so long as these concepts remain abstract. But there is widespread ignorance about the details, and ignorance can quickly turn to fear when we are confronted with unfamiliar energy technologies in our own backyard. We have seen this repeatedly with technologies as benign as wind turbines; decades after the technology proved its value, the wind industry is still fighting project-by-project battles against opponents who use scare tactics, such as fictitious health impacts, to delay and defeat proposed wind farms. But the promise of resilient power technologies – distributed, clean technologies, such as solar+storage, that can provide power to critical facilities when the grid is down – can only be realized if customers welcome these technologies into their homes, businesses, and neighborhoods.

Furthermore, the economic success of resilient power technologies depends on customers taking advantage of opportunities presented by complicated electricity services markets. Until now, most electricity customers have remained blissfully ignorant of the very existence of these markets, which were the exclusive province of utilities, regulators, generators, and a few large industrial customers; but in the very near future, understanding how these markets work will be crucial information for anyone looking to own or lease an energy storage system, because it is these markets that will provide revenue streams to help offset the costs of storage.

As we enter another electricity revolution, marked by grid modernization, distributed generation, energy storage, electric vehicles and “smart” devices, the electric system is once again edging closer to those who use it. No longer an “out of sight, out of mind” system, the grid and all its components will grow increasingly visible to, and interactive with, the general public. If not paced by education, this can create problems. Already, we see an emerging movement to resist the installation of smart meters on homes, and developers report that overly restrictive fire codes are preventing deployment of lithium ion batteries in New York City. More than ever before, education about the electric system is needed, before ignorance and fear of the unknown hobbles a much-needed and long-delayed evolution of our antiquated grids.

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Todd Olinsky-Paul serves as Project Director for both Clean Energy Group and Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA). As a Project Director for Clean Energy Group, Todd co-directs the Resilient Power Project (www.resilient-power.org), which supports deployment of clean distributed technologies such as solar+storage at critical facilities to enable the provision of essential services during grid outages. He also serves as a CESA Project Director for the Energy Storage and Technology Advancement Partnership (ESTAP), a federal-state funding and information sharing project that aims to accelerate the deployment of electrical energy storage technologies in the U.S. (http://bit.ly/CESA-ESTAP). Todd also works on CESA member services, new member outreach efforts, and communications products for both organizations, and manages emerging projects in the areas of biomass thermal energy and combined heat and power. Todd has a Master of Science in Environmental Policy from Bard College and a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University.

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