Grading the Grid: What’s the true renewable tipping point?

If you were to plot U.S. renewable energy usage somewhere on the innovation adoption lifecycle, we’d still fall somewhere between the “Innovator” and “Early Adopter” phase. But with the cost of renewable energy dropping and the number of business and consumer distributed generation installations rising, a renewables-majority isn’t far off.

For utilities, an operational change will be inevitable. The question is: When?

Some industry experts have been quick to postulate on how much renewable energy today’s grid can handle. Many believe, as it stands now, the U.S. grid can handle 30-40% renewable power with a few minor tweaks. When the grid hits 70% renewables is when more sweeping actions are needed.

But today’s grid and control systems are outdated and do not provide the utilities enough flexibility to manage the intermittent nature of renewables.  We are seeing utilities across the US modernizing their communications infrastructure and information technology to manage the equipment in the field including: meters, customer demand control equipment, substations, and their distribution automation equipment.  Utilities are at different phases of their grid modernization journey, but all will need to dramatically improve their control flexibility to handle the inevitable growth of distributed generation.

I would venture to guess that today’s grid could only accommodate 10-20% renewable energy, with 30%-40% as the threshold for a significant redesign.

If the utility industry hopes to meet the new goals set in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, particularly the objective to double renewable power generation by 2020, we may need to form a more realistic attitude toward today’s grid. Despite its intricate design and the superior engineering that went into it (not to mention how long it has served US utilities, businesses and consumers) it can’t last forever.

As we embark on a literal energy revolution – from the sources that generate it, to the direction it travels between utilities and consumers – now is not the time to overestimate our infrastructure. Instead, utilities should embrace the benefits of smart grid investments and start planning to support additional renewable energy today.

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