California has one of the most ambitious carbon reduction targets in the world. Smart grids will be absolutely essential in order for the state to meet its objectives.
It is probably fitting that the land that gave us Hollywood is taking a blockbuster approach to de-carbonisation. California’s lawmakers have agreed that a third of the state’s energy must come from renewable sources by 2020.
Not only that, but by 2050 the state wants to cut emissions by 80% below 1990 levels. That means a lot of carbon-free energy.
And since Californians remain staunchly anti-nuclear and do not have access to large hydro reserves, most of this power will presumably have to come from intermittent sources of energy, such as wind and solar. The challenge does not stop there.
The state aims to achieve this transition at a time when its population is mushrooming. By 2025, 15% of the American population will live in California, up from just over 11% today, according to sources at the US Nuclear Energy Institute.
Furthermore, by 2050 the population will hit 55 million, requiring roughly double the amount of energy as the state consumes at the moment, according to a report last year called California’s Energy Future, by the California Council on Science and Technology.
On top of this, the state also needs to cut the greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles 80% by 2050.
Calculations by the California Air Resources Board indicate this may require putting half a million zero-emissions vehicles on the road every year by 2025, building up to 100% of all new car sales by 2040. It is clear a standard grid will not cut it.
But a smart grid might, and that is one area where California is not hanging around.
Right now, says a source at a major smart grid technology developer, the state’s transition to a low-carbon economy “is in flux. A lot of things that can be achieved will be created and invented in this time period.”
However, he adds, in areas such as building efficiency the state is already making important progress: “There’s a lot of things that are actively being done, worked upon, where we’re helping buildings achieve efficiency and lower carbon emissions.
“I honestly think that’s one of your bigger, most likely successes because these are known carbon-emitting entities. We already know how to make them efficient. All of the technology already exists today. We just have to go out and deploy it.”
Chet Geschickter, research director in the energy and utilities practice at Gartner, adds that: “In order for California to meet its de-carbonisation objectives, smart grid is a vital pre-requisite.
“The macro view is in order to achieve these goals it will require significant renewable energy uptake onto the grid.”
Meanwhile electric vehicle penetration and adoption, he notes, is “certainly part of the strategy” but not necessarily a given; “whether consumers will go down that path is still to be determined; it is not 100% clear in the planning timeframe.”
Nevertheless, smart grids will undoubtedly be needed to provide the measurement and communication infrastructure to coordinate all of California’s distributed energy resources so the state can meet its de-carbonisation objectives.
The smart grid will likely not just be required to handle electric vehicles and distributed power sources such as residential photovoltaic systems.
Californian residents and businesses are already beginning to buy into smart appliances and commercial energy management systems, for example, fostered by schemes such as Southern California Edison’s Technical Assistance and Technology Incentives programme.
This gives business customers a free demand response site assessment and financial incentives for installing equipment to cut energy use during peak demand periods.
How quickly such intelligent grid-related developments will take a hold is yet to be seen. “This is going to play out over a decade or more,” Geschickter states. “The pace will be uneven but the good news is there is an enlightened regulatory approach.”
In addition, he says: “There is a very creative and proactive independent system operator that’s doing very good work, and utilities have very smart people working on this. So when you look at the North American landscape, California appears well positioned to take on these challenges.”
That might make it an interesting source of inspiration for other places that are undertaking major de-carbonisation programmes.
There are obvious parallels between California and Germany, for example: both have ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, big energy requirements, significant penetration of renewable energies and (as of recently in the German case) no-nuclear policies.
There are differences too, of course. The progress of smart grids in Europe, for example, could be hampered by the de-coupling of energy generation, distribution and retail, which can lead to inefficiencies in who can capture the business benefits of advanced metering infrastructure.
For this reason, Geschickter says: “You can’t necessarily take the California model as a blueprint. But it is certainly a good case study. Other markets should closely monitor developments.”
A new Frost & Sullivan study predicts that Australian smart grid revenues will actually shrink by more than a third over the next few years. We look at the reasons why and if there is a chance for smart grid recovery.
Interoperability has mostly been a concern for advanced metering infrastructure deployments. But now it is also becoming a challenge for distribution automation.
When Faroe Islands power company SEV switched off its Sund Power Plant in November 2012 it shone a light on how demand response could help better integrate wind power on the grid.