Getting to grid modernization

Delivering electricity in an era of fluctuating power sources

IN MASSACHUSETTS and across much of the country, the push is on for “grid modernization.” The “grid” is at a critical point of transformation, being driven by trends towards de-carbonization, technological innovation, and customers’ increasing expectation for a more reliable, efficient, sustainable, and interactive network.

The journey required to get there will be mapped by customers, utilities, the marketplace, and regulators. Over time, this undertaking will require collaboration between numerous stakeholders to deliver an electrical grid that has been dramatically reshaped—from the old, one-way system that simply transmits power to customers—to a digitally-enhanced, dynamic two-way “smart” network capable of distributing and storing energy safely, reliably, and in a cost-efficient, sustainable manner.

While some patience will initially be required as this pivotal historic transformation unfolds, it’s clear that grid modernization will go beyond introducing new technologies and policies capable of seamlessly integrating intermittent sources of electricity. In time, it will ignite a dramatic shift in the way business and residential consumers perceive and think about the electricity they rely on for work, play, and more.

In Massachusetts—a state, widely recognized as a hub for technological innovation—the grid modernization effort has been underway for nearly a decade, with Massachusetts emerging as a leader in collaborative efforts between utilities and the technology marketplace. In fact, many of today’s grid mod opportunities began their lifecycles in Massachusetts’ fertile research and development landscape. A prime example is the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, which has partnered with utility leader National Grid and other clean energy innovators by providing research, development, and demonstration services that support and catalyze advances in sustainable, cost-effective energy across the Commonwealth.

For the better part of a century, the Massachusetts grid was built around big power plants that generated massive quantities of electricity capable of serving customers near and far. Few could have predicted the explosive growth of distributed generation or the increasingly volatile intensity of changing weather patterns. And not many would have imagined the need for a two-way electric grid capable of balancing ever-fluctuating customer demand for cleaner more sustainable power, from both traditional and new distributed generation resources that rapidly fluctuate depending on the weather.

This shift in our reality has altered the thinking around energy and created numerous opportunities that have led to successful collaboration between utilities like National Grid and the innovation sector.

As the power grid continues its transition, the underlying goals of modernization – fewer impacts associated with power outages and increased integration of distributed energy resources such as solar and wind power – have stimulated innovations such as “smart” meters capable of sending consumers real-time market information about when it’s most cost-effective to run home appliances and “plug n’ play” solar technology that seeks to recast rooftop PV systems as appliances that can be quickly, easily, and safely installed, even by someone with no prior experience.

For every clean tech and clean energy idea hatched in an incubator, it’s important to remember that customers remain the ultimate arbiters of what works and gains acceptance in the modern grid. Technologies can continue to be created and assessed in the lab and then tested with utilities to help gauge customer interest, but there is no substitute for the ability to gather extensive, precise customer insights.

If policy makers and stakeholders on the frontlines of grid modernization are to move forward quickly, they will need to determine whether businesses and homeowners accept the future of energy – renewable resources, storage, customer demand, peak pricing, and more – by way of testing and validation. Hard work lies ahead but these are exciting times when it comes to Massachusetts and the future of the energy sector. New policies and emerging technologies are poised to advance mandatory carbon reduction goals while assuring the Commonwealth of its continued role as a national and international leader in the clean energy space.

Meet the Author

Christian Hoepfner

Executive director, Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems
Meet the Author

Carlos Nouel

Vice president, National Grid New Energy Solutions Group
For homeowners and businesses across the state, an even greater reward awaits – a truly modern electricity grid that seamlessly integrates renewable energy and deploys smart-grid technologies within the state’s existing utility infrastructure to ensure abundant supplies of reliable, affordable electricity for all.

Christian Hoepfner is the executive director of the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems and Carlos Nouel is vice president of National Grid’s New Energy Solutions group.