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Northeastern University Hosts 2nd Annual Energy Conference
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Northeastern University Hosts 2nd Annual Energy Conference image

On Friday, September 30, Northeastern University’s Energy Systems Society (ESS), a student-led organization focusing on energy, sustainability and the environment, hosted its second annual Energy Conference. The conference gathered industry leaders, government representatives, faculty and students to discuss the “things that actually matter,” including topics such as integrating renewables into the grid, improving energy efficiency in transportation, what it means to be a successful energy entrepreneur, and many more.

For the second year in a row, Paul Lyons, President of Zapotec Energy, was invited by the ESS to speak during a panel session on behalf of the solar industry. The panel was facilitated by Northeastern professor Dr. Brad Lehman, and, in addition to Lyons, included Babak Enayati of National Grid as well as Travis Sheehan of the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BDPA) to cover the perspectives of utilities and policy makers. The panel was focused on one question: How do we integrate more renewable energy into the grid?

The guest speakers offered their thoughts, concerns and potential solutions. During just one hour of brainstorming, a number of ideas were presented and it was determined that the next steps involve technological innovation and the creation of new business models.

As cleantech innovation continues, what will the grid look like in 2050?

Lyons began by emphasizing the nation’s need for more alternative energy sources, such as solar PV, wind energy, nuclear, hydro power, biofuel and fuel cells. He wonders what percentage of our energy supply will come from renewables. Energy storage is an example of one emerging technology that is expected to advance the deployment of clean energy.

According to the recent State of Charge report, released by the MA Department of Energy Resources (DOER) in September 2016, the storage capacity of the state’s daily electricity consumption is less than one percent. This limited amount of storage, in addition to inadequate infrastructure, has been a significant barrier between renewables and the electric grid. As prices continue to fall, however, it is becoming more feasible to combine storage with renewable energy installations.

Without energy storage there is a mismatch between the time of peak solar energy generation (10AM to 3PM) and the peak demand of electricity amongst ratepayers (6PM-7PM). Pairing solar-plus-storage would allow for a significant amount of “peak shaving” across the state, saving ratepayers money by reducing the utility demand charge. To put it simply, integrating energy storage into the grid would offset the peak load, taking the burden of demand response off of the utilities’ shoulders and allowing more opportunities to install intermittent renewable sources like solar or wind energy. As Enayati and Lyons discussed in the panel session, energy storage should be installed wherever the utility needs it. The utility companies have the most detailed load data that would tell developers where energy storage would have the greatest impact.

In addition to energy storage, microgrids would have a significant effect on increasing the percentage of renewables in the grid since they pull from multiple energy sources. Microgrids increase energy independence not only by providing a backup to the electric grid, but also by reducing energy costs and having the ability to easily connect to a renewable source like solar PV. According to Sheehan, municipalities, like the City of Boston, are already facing the effects of climate change and are seeking to improve their resiliency to the grid by introducing the idea of microgrids to certain communities. For instance, the BDPA hopes that, in at least ten years, Boston will host a couple of microgrids with central energy units and multiple tenants. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) has also been preparing for this emerging field and in 2014 released a study focusing on the benefits of microgrids for the Commonwealth. As the MassCEC works with the MA Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to update the state’s distribution grid network, the development of microgrids in Massachusetts is becoming a more viable option.

The need for new business models, state policy

Although Governor Baker’s recent bill to promote energy diversity throughout the Commonwealth was a significant “morale boost for the industry,” according to Sheehan, there is still a lot of work to be done on Beacon Hill. Lyons recommended that state policy makers look to California’s mandates and regulations in order to set a higher Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which is the percentage of the grid’s energy supply generated by renewables, and ambitious energy storage targets. New and innovative designs for rates and incentives will enable the energy storage market, and eventually help renewables like solar PV grow without subsidies.

At this point, it is risky for utilities to move to a business model that focuses mostly on renewable energy. In order to make this happen, agencies like the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) would offer to preserve utility companies as they transition to a model that supports the installation of clean energy, storage and microgrid technologies. In fact, the panel suggested that DPU regulators allow utilities to recover their investments through the rate base.

In addition to utilities, the state would need to pass new legislation that would establish business models that encourage greater adoption of microgrids. Because microgrids span across multiple properties, it is difficult to determine which party would take on system ownership, distribution, and operation roles. At this time in Massachusetts, “utilities are prohibited from owning generation assets,” with the exception of owning “up to 50 MW of solar generation” (MassCEC 6-1). To move forward with the transition to microgrids we need to determine the boundaries of the utilities, including the possibility of rolling out regulation that relaxes “the prohibition of utility ownership of generation assets,” at least “for the purposes of conducting pilot projects” (6-1).

National Grid’s Marcy Reed:  “We are no longer your grandfather’s utility.”

The keynote speaker of this year’s NU Energy Conference was Marcy Reed, the President of National Grid Massachusetts. In a compelling speech, Reed assured students that National Grid is “no longer your grandfather’s utility.” Over the last several years, the utility has made great progress in its movement toward renewable energy integration. As Reed described it, National Grid “wants to make the grid a playground for others.” Not only are utilities like National Grid realizing the need for change in the electric grid, they are making it happen.

Students focusing on energy systems have their work cut out for them. With National Grids’ aging workforce and shift toward clean energy, there will be ample opportunity for students to join the effort. According to Lyons, students should be looking as far as 40 years into the future. They need to learn what is going on in the industry today, find a visionary and then determine their own role. Integrating more renewable energy into the grid is going to take a combined effort from advances in technology, regulatory action, business model development and the will of the public. 

Image: Northeastern University's Energy Systems Society (ESS), September 30, 2016.

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