A smart grid will save residents and businesses money — and make DC more resilient.
With a smarter grid, we'll reduce utility bills, catalyze distributed and clean energy, and make our city more resilient to weather and security risks.
A Smarter Grid — Designed for modern technologies
Over the last century, telecommunication moved from rotary phones to cellphones; information flow progressed from telegraphs to emails; transportation advanced from horse carriages to Ubers. Now it's time to make that kind of progress with energy.
It's time to move from singular reliance on big power plants, poles and wires — and towards distributed, resilient, and clean power. (Want to skip to how we're going to make it happen? Click here.)
A MORE RESILIENT CITY
It's a truism for many: when a thunderstorm takes down trees and power lines, the electricity goes out, right? Not with a smart grid.
In a decentralized grid, power is generated onsite or near where it's consumed (e.g. rooftop solar). This means downed power lines don't result in outages. And it means that security breaches, in which centralized infrastructure is targeted, don't result in the entire system collapsing. (There's a reason the military has been the first to deploy smart grids!)
REDUCED INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDS & COSTS
A fundamental fact of the centralized grid is that power plants and power lines, plus their associated equipment (e.g. substations), must be sized to handle the peak amount of electricity used at any given time. This means that even if there are only a few days a year when everyone's air conditioning is on at full-blast, the power system must be sized for those days. As a result, 95%+ of the time we're using only a fraction of the energy infrastructure we've built.
With a smart grid, that changes. More onsite generation — and fewer wires, substations, etc. — will significantly reduce our traditional infrastructure needs. The outcome is simple: residents and businesses will save money, potentially billions of dollars.
HOW IT'S POSSIBLE — IMPROVED TECHNOLOGY, LOWER COSTS
Why is it time to transform our energy infrastructure? Energy technology has become far better and cheaper in recent years. One good example of the advancements in clean energy is the dramatic reduction in the price of solar panels (see chart to right). As recently as ten years ago, solar was expensive and out of reach for most residents and businesses. That's completely changed now. In the District of Columbia, rooftop solar is now less expensive than electricity from the grid.
Similar advancements are happening with other key distributed resources.
- Battery storage. Storage is often referred to as the "game changer" for clean energy. With battery costs cut in half since 2010 and anticipated to decline further, many industry experts expect that we are on the verge of a storage revolution.
- Electric vehicles (EVs). The environmental benefit of EVs goes beyond using less oil. In the near future, electric vehicles will increasingly serve two purposes: transportation and mobile storage. As battery storage systems, EVs will allow homes to store solar power in their cars and then use that power at nighttime and during periods of peak demand.
- Smart building solutions. Smart thermostats and smart water heaters (i.e. heating water when a home's not otherwise using electricity) are two examples of devices that can reduce a home's peak demand. For commercial buildings, automated building management systems can shave peak power while ensuring the comfort of tenants.
- Combined Heat & Power (CHP). For large-scale distributed energy, there may be no better solution than CHP. Also known as cogeneration, CHP is the simultaneous production of electricity and the utilization of that generation's "waste" heat. CHP plants can be sized to power entire neighborhoods, with microgrids connecting the buildings. When done with renewable bio-gas, these solutions are carbon free as well.
With improved technology that's economically attractive, we now have the ability to decentralize our energy system, create a far more resilient city, and save residents and businesses money.
Better Data & Transparency — Giving consumers access to their data, & improving city clean energy programs
This new, smarter grid will depend on information flow as much as energy flow. Unfortunately, at present, DC’s grid operates with analog data that provides little visibility into energy demand, DER supply, and the electric distribution system — all things that will change with a smarter grid.
A few real world examples of the paucity of local energy data, and how improved data availability could help.
- Monthly to real-time data. Monthly utility bills are the singular source of info for most of DC’s energy users. These 12 points of data, per building per year, stand in stark contrast to the 35,040 points of data available from smart meters.
- With more granular data, homes and businesses can deploy more intelligent solutions (e.g. storage) to reduce their peak demand — saving money and reducing the need for centralized energy infrastructure.
- Data availability works the same for energy as it does in other applications (e.g. FitBit): energy users are much more likely to seek solutions, and change behavior, with real-time information and feedback.
- Data from distributed generation. There is virtually no data available from the thousands of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) deployments across the District. Though the data acquisition technology is in place, no system exists to collect this data for key stakeholders.
- With actual generation data, the District can plan and execute dynamic programs (e.g. solar+storage) to reduce peak demand and mitigate unnecessary infrastructure spending.
- Better measurement and verification (M&V) of energy programs. M&V for the District's clean energy programs and subsidies, funded with hundreds of millions of ratepayer dollars, are largely done through “desk reviews," not with actual data. This leaves the government blind to the actual performance of its programs.
- Performance-based M&V would not only improve accountability for city programs, but it would enable planning for innovative and behavior-based energy solutions.
Utilizing Existing Assets — Leveraging existing policies and assets to save ratepayers money
The good news? DC is uniquely positioned to create a state-of-the-art grid. While jurisdictions across America wait for smart meter deployments to catalyze grid modernization, the District has already done much of the heavy lifting.
More than five years ago, the city invested nearly $100 million in Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). With the nation’s leading per-capita deployment of smart meters — over 250,000 meters total — it’s now possible to securely transmit electrical consumption data at high resolution. The benefits, some of which are described above, could be enormous.
As noted here, the District has also passed, and is currently considering, progressive laws to promote clean energy. A smarter grid would make those laws far more useful. For instance, the District's proposed Green Bank would benefit enormously from an environment that pursues non-wires alternatives (NWAs) instead of traditional infrastructure. Financing for NWAs could be dynamic; the Green Bank could help bring down those costs.
Collaboration — A better informed process that works for all residents
Far too often, decision-making regarding our energy infrastructure is done behind closed doors. Notably, forecasts for electricity consumption and required capacity — the basis for traditional infrastructure spending — are done without any input from local stakeholders and without the benefit of DER data. Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that the utility's forecasts are frequently inaccurate and too high.
A smarter grid requires transparency and collaboration when it comes to utility planning. A decentralized grid means opening up the "black box" of utility planning to the grid's new stakeholders: the thousands of homes and businesses now producing their own power with their distributed energy resources (DERs).