When we talk about energy generation in the US, many bring up the notion of a struggle between the two sides. There is the side with green, renewable energy, and there are those that stick with fossil fuels. There is a sense of a sharp dividing line between the two. Either consumers wanted to stay on the grid or abandon it. The development of grid edge solutions allows homes and businesses to have the best of both sides. They can stay on the reliable grid, but lower costs as they manage their green energy. With the advent of cheap solar generators in the home, more homeowners can enjoy solar power.
This concept has some interesting potential. But, what does it means for utilities? Can they adapt and survive this new approach?
The Popularity Of Solar Power Is Unlikely To Die Down
Solar power generation has grown in popularity across many homes in America. This is mainly because of falling costs, falling bills and the environmental implications. It is now pretty easy to create an efficient system with the right technology and components.
Key solar-powered devices to become aware of include the following:
- Solar power generators
- Solar panels and roof tiles
Solar power generators are the obvious replacement for power-hungry, emission-producing generators. They are clean, quiet and pretty easy to use with the right system. They often provide a lot more convenience and peace of mind for the user. This means no more worries about fuel supplies and sharp running costs. This is important at a time where increased blackouts and natural disasters play havoc with grid supplies.
The management of at-home solar power is also much easier with the development of battery storage. This was once an expensive addition that also required far too much space for limited capacity. Today, many companies continue to develop smaller, a high capacity unit that can handle a home’s power supply. Models like the Tesla Powerwall are more affordable, accessible and appealing than ever.
Then there are the ongoing developments with the panels and other forms of solar power generation. Again, it is all about making solar systems smaller, more efficient and more appealing to consumers. A typical solar power set-up has a lot of potential for energy generation but doesn’t look great. Modern options change all of that. Tesla – again – have even created roof tiles that are practically invisible to passers-by.
This all leads to a new form of power generation at the edge of the grid.
As long as this solar tech is accessible and attractive to the consumer, there are more opportunities for growth. The result for homeowners is to generate a reliable supply of energy, cut costs and aid the environment. Some like the idea of going off-grid, but others are wary of burning that bridge. This is where grid-edge power generation comes in. This is where users create energy on the boundaries – generating enough for their needs, but holding onto the grid connection. This seems like the most beneficial, convenient way to embrace solar, without losing the utilities. This should bring the best of both worlds, but some utility companies have their concerns. Either way, consumers can see the upsides.
What does an edge-powered grid mean for consumers?
The potential gains for homeowners with solar systems and grid connections could be significant. They include the following:
- Lower costs
- Reliable power sources in emergencies
- Fewer emissions and a greener footprint
- Better power solutions for renewable-powered vehicles
The potential benefits for consumers are significant. First of all, there is the guarantee of lower costs. Homeowners ditch grid-energy to lower their bills. Solar power generation supplies their home with energy and reduces reliance on the utilities. This is essential for those struggling with rising costs. Some worry about the reliability of their power supply in emergencies. A grid-edge system means reliable, personal power generation in blackouts. But, there is also backup power when the solar system fails. This switch to the edge of the grid should also help to lower emissions and improve the green credentials of the household. An exciting knock-on effect here is the compatibility of grid-edge supplies for electric cars. As these vehicles develop and decrease in price, more homes will require reliable charging solutions.
So what does this mean for the future of solar and utilities across the US?
There is a clear love of all things solar-powered and solar generated. This is the future for consumers able to afford the kit and communities with a greener footprint. Still, there are consequences to this grid-edge solution. These mostly fall upon the utilities consumers relied upon for so long. Does this mean the end of the road for utilities? Not necessarily. The potential problem here for traditional utilities is that the grid-edge process rips up the current business model. There is the sense that companies need to either adapt, fight back or give up entirely. Those that embrace this new approach and adjust their grids may do well. Those that resist it may deal with complications down the line.
How can utilities survive with this development, and still work with grid-edge processes?
There are big concerns within utility companies over lost revenues. This stems from a few key issues.
- Homeowners lower their costs with a new approach to energy generation
- Some eliminate their bills altogether
- Many will pay less to the utility company while using the system more
- A financial loss from the use of start-up and backup power
The issue of lower bills is a big concern for utility companies that still have the same customers on their grid. Homes and business have access to the supply as they need it, but pay less for grid-edge power generation. This borderline solution still relies on grid power, even if the majority comes from a solar power system. For example, the grid offers both back-up and start-up power to major appliances and machinery. Big businesses need this safety net to get up and to run. The energy company still loses out in the long run.
On the subject of cost, it is important to note that it is a different story across the states due to different incentives.
Although popular, solar power currently accounts for just 1-2% of the US’s total electricity generation. This is then visible in geographical clusters with peaks and low points in different areas. There is the problem with fair costs for consumers in Arizona. Here it is the wealthier residents that equip solar systems in their homes. Their lower bills and, potential damage to the system, increase costs to other on-grid consumers. This could be the less affluent suburb next door already struggling with their bills.
There are also bigger concerns about surges and flows depending on the location. A lot of the talk about grid-edge issues centers around California. This is where solar solutions gained the most momentum, and where the risk of overloads in the greatest. Other states and communities are less of an issue.
The utility companies also have to deal with the issue of grid instability.
This is where California plays its role in this debate. There are fears that aggressive mandates on renewable energy there could cause grid instability. This was the outcome of a meeting of operators and planners in the state. There are growing concerns that too much emphasis on solar and wind power within the grid system will weaken it. Rooftop solar already has a massive impact on the grid in California.
Experts from solar and wind companies refute this. They insist that there is no problem at all as long as these utility companies employ careful planning. They say that it isn’t as though there will be a large, unexpected surge that the grid isn’t ready for. Forecasts on growth and production are available for insight into the need for future capacity. They insist that it is all about implementing new technology and upgrades. This is the best way ensure that the grid is stable enough to handle more clean, green energy. This is surely preferable to limiting renewable energy production as the need to offset carbon emissions grows.
So how can utilities respond to this?
How can electricity providers adapt their systems to cope with renewable energy, rather than reject it? One issue of note is the need for a two-way power flow in distribution grids. At the moment, there is a one-way flow on most grids – all energy flows to the consumer in a reliable stream of power. An edge-powered grid, with solar power generation, means more energy was entering the grid. Therefore, all systems must substitute the one-way flow system for a two-way flow system for the best results.
Even then, this overlooks a key issue that these utilities have to deal with – the “shadow load.”
Green energy suppliers talk about long-term forecasts for growth and an understanding of a need to boost capacity. However, utility experts highlight the secondary issue of the “shadow load.” This is a surge in power, generated in real time, that isn’t visible to the utility company. They can’t create an accurate assessment of exactly how much energy users create and send back into the grid at one time. They also can’t see where it is coming from. That is because every homeowner is responsible for their energy generation, in their own way.
Can the US learn anything from other nations on the best way to handle solar and grid-edge solutions?
The US is not the first country to deal with this issue. Many other countries are embracing solar – often on a larger scale – that had to adjust their grid. Germany and Japan saw increased solar use and adjusted their grid-based utilities accordingly.
Germany’s solution was to work with a new, flexible system that could need with energy transmission. This occurred in 2014 when battery storage was too expensive. At the time 28% of the nation’s power came from renewables. This is considerably more than the US. Their flexible system and smart monitoring meant a reliable, secure system. In fact, at the time, they had just 15 minutes of interruption per consumer per year. This was minimal compared to the several hundreds of minutes in the US.
There is a lot of confusion here when it comes to the pros and cons, and the future, of this grid-edge approach.
There are positive and negative factors on both sides here. Green energy companies have the potential to expand and create environmental benefits. There may not be the grid capacity to expand into. Utilities have an opportunity to adapt and embrace this new grid-edge system. But, it might not be that easy. The future of this approach depends on the following factors. They will transform standard utility models and help companies survive.
- Utilities have to move away from the centralized grip and distribute output more efficiently.
- This decentralization then helps to minimize the effects of emergency situations. Therefore, there is less chance of a major city-wide blackout in a hurricane.
- These decentralized areas need better resilience to intermittent power and unpredictable inputs. Green energy inputs will fluctuate, so companies must have safeguards and solutions in place.
- These companies must also embrace new technology that will make this transformation even easier. Two-way flows and smart meters are just the starts.
So, what is the future for grid-edge energy generation? Will Tesla win, or is this a short-term fad?
There is no doubt that green energy production is here to stay. Homeowners have embraced solar systems thanks to the accessibility and affordability. The rise of devices like generators, panels, roof tiles and battery packs just enhances that. The current approach is not ideal. Companies on both sides need to work together to create a harmonious relationship.
If people continue to take advantage of the perks on the edge of the grid, this still requires a strong, reliable utility system. Those that can create flexible two-systems than can handle an intermittent load will do OK. This way we can generate clean energy, send some to the grid, and still have that back up supply for emergencies. Without the utilities, the US power supply may surge and fluctuate out of control.