“When will everything go back to normal?” When I moved to an electric company that was just starting its transition to the future, I heard that question from several employees.
The answer was, “This is normal, until next week, then it changes again.”
Making and delivering energy is a balancing act. Ideals versus reality. Costs versus available funds. Project management versus impetuousness.
The balancing act is exemplified in California right now. As California Moves Towards EVs, Can the Grid Keep Up? an LA Times reporter asked. “The short answer is yes. But long term, the electric grid will need to be reinforced to support the growing demands of an all-electric California.”
Or an all-electric nation.
How is this an energy balancing act in California, and what can we learn?
- The Governor banned sales of petroleum-fueled vehicles in 2035. There is not an adequate charging system in place for alternative fuel vehicles, or maybe even planned yet.
- “Increases in demand at the grid level have been held down by improved efficiency in electric equipment and appliances and the growth of behind-the-meter solar,” says the story, but even with that the utilities are planning for a 60% growth in electric needs.
- Power infrastructure built to support businesses does not look as critical as people work from home. Conversely, residential infrastructure looks like it needs beefing-up.
- Homes evolve as power-makers or power-storage units as utilities must strengthen the power system for the future.
Certain technical and hardware needs must exist for a grid to operate. Certain policies must be in place that represent the consumers, not just lobbies. If a state or utility doesn’t improve one thing there has to be a corresponding “give” somewhere else. For instance,
- If a utility is not making the right investments to ensure power resilience in homes, those homeowners will have to account for that or go without during an outage.
- If a utility is mandated to tap renewable energy but does not invest in renewables it has to buy that power from elsewhere.
- Or this, “The key expense with wind [energy] is the transmission — moving it from the windmill to the city.” Wind is cheap. New transmission lines may not be cheap, but essential to use the wind energy.
Think of balloons at a birthday party. Squeezing the balloon in one place doesn’t eliminate the air inside the balloon. It displaces air. Energy needs feel the same squeeze. Press on them in one place and issues expand somewhere else.
Change is especially a challenge when sexy new technology lures people. “Just don’t fall in love with technology. Never fall in love with technology. Technology is a tool that lets you accomplish goals. The technology is the shovel you use to dig for gold, and it’s the gold you’re after, not the shovel. And that’s where some people fail,” said a Silicon Valley innovator in a Wall Street Journal report, How to Get Big Ideas Off the Ground.
Just because you can use something doesn’t mean you should. Have a real reason for the technology. Technology is a means to an end.
The point is this: Exceptional planning and execution are needed to foresee and get past hurdles in our next-gen electric system. Vast energy mandates feel good and may make people pump out their chests with admiration of their own dedication to the Earth and sustainability. Vast mandates do not do good unless there is proper potential problem analysis, research, and creativity to map to the results.
The public, utilities and policymakers must meet in realistic sessions to determine what our new normal will be.