Grid can handle electric cars, renewables if U.S. crafts new policies — MIT

Source: Hannah Northey • E&E • Posted: Tuesday, December 6, 2011


New federal policies are needed to help the country’s vast, aging electric grid ward off cyber attacks and handle a surge of electric cars and renewable power during the next two decades, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said today.
The MIT Energy Initiative released a report that found the grid is not in imminent danger and that officials can integrate renewables, site power lines that cross state lines and maintain cybersecurity if specific policy changes are made.Without those regulatory tweaks, electric reliability could suffer, costs could spike and several public policy goals may not be met, MIT researchers say.The report calls on Congress, state regulators and utilities to ensure needed transmission lines are built, price signals are clear for customers and renewables are integrated without raising costs significantly. But the report’s authors — a panel of 13 MIT faculty members and one from Harvard University — steered clear of promoting sweeping changes that may not gain traction on a divisive Capitol Hill, said Richard Schmalensee, a co-director of the report and the Howard W. Johnson professor of economics and management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.”We see no political appetite for [large changes to the federal regulatory process], so we don’t push in that direction,” he said. “[But] you need to move past the 1930s regulatory regime and make a number of changes.”

Congress should grant the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more authority to site high-voltage transmission lines that cross state lines, including those that transport power from isolated pockets of wind and solar to major population hubs, the report says. FERC currently faces stiff opposition in some states that oppose new power lines and has limited backstop authority.

Some lawmakers have introduced language to grant the commission authority to trump state opposition (E&ENews PM, Oct. 11).

FERC needs that authority especially in cases where power is produced by solar or wind farms that are located far from where the electricity is being consumed and long-distance power lines would be built across multiple regulatory jurisdictions, the study says. John Kassakian, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT and the study’s other co-chairman, called it a “chicken-and-egg problem” because the development of renewables is directly tied to transmission.

“Nobody’s going to build these new renewable energy plants unless they know there will be transmission lines to get the power to load centers,” Kassakian said in a statement. “And nobody’s going to build transmission lines unless the difficulty of siting lines across multiple jurisdictions is eased.”

MIT researchers also called for restructuring the way customers pay for costs associated with the grid, which is currently based on usage. The current system, for example, gives utilities little incentive to support rooftop solar installations on homes, they said. Instead, utilities should recover costs from ratepayers through charges that do not vary with electricity consumption.

The report also calls on utilities that have installed “smart meters” to begin making the transition to pricing regimes in which customers pay rates that reflect the time-varying costs of supplying power.

MIT researchers cited the need for more investment into research and development of ways to operate the bulk power system, establish transmission lines on a large scale and recover from cyber attacks. They also called for a single federal agency to oversee and coordinate cyber preparedness, response and recovery across the entire electric power sector.

Data sharing also needs to be stepped up so policymakers better understand how “smart grid” installations supported through 2009 stimulus funds have worked, according to the report.

Such widespread sharing of data from real-time monitoring of the grid could also prevent reliability failures. Although the study found the growth of electric vehicles will be slow and widely dispersed enough to prevent straining the grid, researchers said there could be areas where penetration is high enough to require extra generating capacity. Such challenges could be detected early and addressed if more real-time data were shared, they said.

Ten graduate students and an advisory panel of 19 leaders from academia, industry and government also helped write the report.

Click here to read the MIT study.