What's an investor-owned utility to do when cities and towns (not to mention campuses and military bases) it serves explore a microgrid solution, in the wake of reliability issues? IOUs in Connecticut, where grids took a big weather-related hit last fall, may be asking that question as various stakeholders gathered last month to consider the future of power in their communities.
Reliability and sustainability—consider them related concepts, as sustainability is reliability over time—get bandied about these days with some frequency.
Like the weather, everybody's talking about it but nobody's doing anything about it. (Work with me here, we both know that's not entirely true.)
While utilities of course constantly explore new means to reliability and sustainability, today they have company. Specifically, cities and towns in Connecticut are actively exploring microgrids and distributed generation. Just as microgrids are sought in developing economies in lieu of a centralized power grid, so microgrids have become the focus of entities—cities, towns, campuses (military, hospital, university)—in the de-evolution of centralized power in developed countries.
These trends pose a challenge to today's electric utility. Should the intelligent utility accommodate the desire of its customers to create self-sustaining units that can reduce demand, but may offer benefits, including that reduced demand? (Can "islanding" of microgrids benefit a local utility? What about a microgrid's ability to deliver power back to the grid in an emergency?) Or should today's utility fight this trend if it cannot control the outcome?
In response to a past column we published on the topic, one reader articulated certain issues.
"Investor-owned utilities will continue to resist microgrids unless they can own them, because to do otherwise is tantamount to allowing unfettered competition, loss of market share and a process of voluntarily shrinking the regulated business," this correspondent wrote. "What are regulators likely to do? Candidates for microgrids may also want to own them because doing so is clearly cost-effective, but allowing unfettered private ownership affects not only the utility, but potentially customers that do not choose the microgrid option."
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