By Lorenzo Kristov, Ph.D. Kristov is an independent consultant focusing on power system transition to integrate high levels of renewable generation and distributed energy resources (DER). Kristov will be a speaker at the March 23, 2023 General Assembly. Register here.
For 100 years electricity has been delivered by a centrally controlled monopoly utility system, over which local governments, communities and customers have had little say. City planners tend not to deal with energy planning, leaving it to the utility and its regulatory body unless a serious concern arises.
Today, new climate-driven energy needs and the emergence of clean, high-performing “distributed energy resources” (DERs) are challenging this paradigm with possibilities for local decision-making and investment in electricity production, supply and use.
COMMUNITY ENERGY SYSTEMS
- individual customers over-sizing their rooftop solar+battery electricity systems to provide energy to their neighbors.
- locally owned co-ops operating electricity supply businesses and electric vehicle charging stations as integral components of the local economy.
- urban electrification projects, such as municipal vehicle fleets and school buses, powered completely by publicly owned local renewable energy assets.
- every neighborhood with a “resilience hub” that can provide shelter, warmth or cooling, food, social services, basic care and phone/internet services when power fails during emergency events, with near-zero energy costs year-round.
- city planners and developers co-optimizing local energy production with tree canopy, land use, public space and stormwater capture at the neighborhood or subdivision level.
The emergence of DER technologies—including rooftop solar, battery storage, electric vehicles and charging systems, load-management, and microgrids capable of stand-alone electric service—offers a just-in-time redesign of how we produce, distribute and use electricity to meet today’s urgent imperatives, not of concern when the 20th century system evolved.
As a result of accumulated climate, ecosystem and social impacts of fossil-fuel-dominated energy systems, we must address three urgent needs:
- Resilience or adaptation: to ensure all people and communities have continuous electric service for essential functions during disasters and power system outages;
- Decarbonization: transforming our energy practices to eliminate and reverse their damaging impacts;
- Energy equity: to ensure reliable energy for the most vulnerable, remediate energy-related injustices, and provide equitable access to the benefits of DERs.
But there are still barriers to DERs to address. This starts with updating the top-down, centralized monopoly framework that has historically characterized electric
service. The traditional utility monopoly is a hindrance to mobilizing DERs to meet today’s societal needs.
Customers with the financial resources can install DERs and reduce or eliminate the need for utility service, but this could worsen energy inequities unless new policies ensure all energy users benefit from DER technologies. This includes allowing locally owned DERs to supply electric service to their communities.
State support is needed to help local governments build capacity to integrate DER development into the scope of their planning. Local governments empowered with energy planning capability can lead the way to a resilient and democratized energy future. •