California is engaged in a major revision of the ways in which its utilities manage their distribution grid. This sounds like a rather unsexy topic, but its actually a real game-changer in terms of how we get our power. The major benefit of distributed energy resources is that they are located close to load and thus dont require expensive new transmission lines. Transmission lines are typically the big steel poles, which are much more expensive than the wooden poles that make up most distribution grid spans.
In addition to cost benefits, distributed resources also offer grid reliability benefits because of decentralization -- the opposite of the traditional central station model of very large power plants that can lead to vulnerabilities, like weve seen from the premature shutdown of the 2.2-gigawatt San Onofre nuclear power station.
Distributed resources can also avoid the major environmental issues that come from very large renewable energy facilities like were seeing crop up in California and other states more and more frequently. I dont have a particular beef with very large facilities, but it seems clear to me that if medium- and small-scale renewable energy facilities can provide the same benefits as large facilities with far less environmental impact, we should opt for the former.
Californias policymakers are increasingly agreeing with my preference. AB 327, passed in 2013, requires, among other things, that the states private utilities complete Distribution Resources Plans by mid-2015, which will recalibrate how utilities plan for and interconnect new distributed power generation and other distributed energy resources like demand response and energy efficiency.
Specifically, the law requires Distribution Resources Plans (DRPs) to:
Evaluate locational benefits and costs of distributed resources
Propose or identify standard tariffs, contracts or other mechanisms for deploying cost-effective distributed resources
Propose other cost-effective methods for coordinating existing programs aimed at distributed resources
Identify any additional utility spending necessary to integrated cost-effective distributed resources
Identify barriers to the deployment of distributed resources
Thats quite a task list, and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has been assigned to oversee this process (in proceeding R.14-08-013). As part of that duty, the CPUC is working with a group from Caltech that has produced a white paper called More than Smart. The white paper and the ongoing collaboration aim to identify the most appropriate ways that the utilities can implement AB 327s requirements.
The CPUC has also issued its own white paper, authored by Commissioner Picker and his staff, and it sets forth a truly forward-looking vision of how distribution grid planning could and should be improved. Perhaps most remarkably, the CPUCs white paper and accompanying ruling calls for an eight- to ten-year process of iterated DRPs, rather than the single DRP called for in AB 327.
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