Rethinking the Grid at Tufts Energy Conference

Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Tufts Energy Conference on a panel entitled  "Rethinking the Grid in a Changing Climate.” The session addressed why the grid needs updating and the challenges facing both customers and cities for the adoption of new technology. The following industry experts joined me on the panel:

  • Margarett Jolly, Director R&D, Con Edison
  • Rob Thornton, CEO, International District Energy Association
  • Dr. Patrick Brown , Postdoctoral Researcher, MIT Energy Initiative
  • Dan Foley , Senior Analyst, GTM Research
  • Moderated by Kelly Sims Gallagher, Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy, Director of the Center for International Environment & Resource Policy, Tufts University

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to modernizing the electric grid is that regulation often lags behind innovative technologies. Often, utilities and the government are slow to embrace new technology that can improve the grid. Even in situations when utilities are ready to adopt new technologies like energy storage, as pointed out by GTM Research’s Dan Foley, they are often constrained. Other countries seem uninhibited by the lag faced in the United States, according to IDEA’s Rob Thornton, who noted that 66 percent of heat from power plants in America goes to waste, while in Denmark, waste heat is piped and sold to buildings. In Canada, many cities are reducing cooling costs by up to 90 percent by capturing cold from local lakes instead of using expensive chillers connected to the grid.

My fellow panelists emphasized that customer engagement is critical to successful grid modernization. Thornton noted that certain customers, such as hospitals, labs, and airports, will always be invested in improving energy reliability. Institutions like these are leading the way on building microgrids. Other customers, however, remain reluctant to adopt new technologies. City officials, particularly in fire departments, often express concern about locating batteries in residential or commercial areas. Con Edison’s Margarett Jolly suggested that moving to models with mobile storage could mitigate these fears.

Professor Gallagher noted that communities need to move from a “not in my backyard” to a “yes in my backyard” mentality regarding new technologies. In my experience, design is an effective means of encouraging community adoption. This topic was explored last year at an MIT Enterprise Forum event entitled “Is Seductive Design the Key to Sustainability,” which featured the work of Sistine Solar, a local startup based at Greentown Labs that is designing a solar skin for panels to blend into residential roofs. Dr. Brown also stressed that discussing climate change at the local level can help accelerate resiliency initiatives being taken on by communities

A modernized grid capable of withstanding climate change will require regulatory reform, innovation, and time-of-use-rates. To that end, I concluded the morning’s panel by urging attendees to review NECEC’s white paper Leading the Next Era of Electricity Innovation, and utilize the report as a resource to help us all rethink the grid through clean energy solutions.

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Alistair Pim

Alistair Pim is NECEC's Vice President, Innovation & Partnerships. He manages NECEC's Strategic Partner Network.