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Grid Modernization: How Creating a Stable, Sustainable Grid Helps Communities and the Environment

At Solar Design Studio, we get excited by technological innovation and the possibilities it illuminates for our future. Recently, we’ve been focusing our attention on microgrids and distributed generation as driving forces behind the off-grid movement, which allows remote locations and those without existing infrastructure to create, store, and manage their own power. Microgrids offer the possibility of a future in which community-based, sustainable, and environmentally friendly solutions replace utility companies’ monopoly on power.

This doesn’t mean we will totally abandon the electric grid that is currently in place, but it does mean major changes in how it is used and regulated. Grid modernization efforts are already underway, pioneering a new kind of energy grid that more seamlessly interfaces with solar and other renewable energy sources and presents other innovative possibilities. Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening in grid modernization and what it means for our communities and our environment.

The History and Future of the Electric Grid

The electric grid currently in operation today is surprisingly similar to the original grids established in the late 1800’s by Thomas Edison and William Stanley, Jr. From their beginnings as small, highly localized operations, they gradually expanded to become the vast infrastructure that we recognize today. This expansion was at first fueled in major cities by “elaborate and powerful monopolies,” as the energy journal Burn reports, but “public outrage at the subsequent costs came to a head during the Great Depression and sparked Federal regulations, as well as projects to provide electricity to rural areas.” The 1990’s saw a push to open access to the expanded grid, leading to Independent System Operators working in competition with vertically-integrated utility companies. As a result, a grid that works much the same as it did a hundred years ago has nonetheless become an extraordinarily complex patchwork of regulations and authority.

Grid modernization efforts seek to bring this system fully into the 21st century. As the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) explains, this means “improving the physical framework – for example, updating old pole-and-wire systems to better incorporate rooftop solar panels so that there can be a two-way flow of energy from our homes to the grid and back” and also “installing smart meters to show us our minute-by-minute energy use” and empower consumers to make more informed choices.

In addition to physical and technological upgrades, grid modernization also means changing the policies under which utility companies currently do business. As the CLF notes, “in exchange for being awarded a monopoly over a specific area, each utility commits to follow the rules created by the state utilities agency.” Lobbying state agencies to adopt policies that are inclusive of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power can increase consumer’s choices and positively impact the environment. Utility companies want to preserve their monopoly, but grid modernization proponents are working hard to make the current grid a more accessible and inclusive infrastructure.

Why Modernize the Grid?

Why fix something that isn’t obviously broken? While many consumers may not notice the cracks, the current grid is not “too big to fail.” As recent natural disasters such as wildfires in California and hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico have demonstrated, a large, complex grid is vulnerable to outages and inefficiencies and time-consuming to rebuild. Grid modernization experts hope to fix these flaws through incorporating new technology and greater flexibility.

In addition, the current grid is holding us back as we seek ways to reduce our impact on the environment. “The stakes are high if we don’t update the way utilities do things,” the CLF notes. “We can’t easily address climate change without updating this system, which was designed before today’s clean energy technologies existed—and before we knew climate change was a threat.”

“How can we better prepare our energy system to stand stronger in the face of (recent) disasters?” the Environmental Defense Fund asks. “Grid modernization is essential to ensuring the energy systems that power our lives and underpin our economy are protected from future disruptive events. But beyond simply keeping the lights on, modernizing our electric grid also… (mitigates) the future impacts of climate change.”

By updating an outdated, monopolistic system of power generation and distribution, we can create a more sustainable, egalitarian, and environmentally friendly grid to power our future. We can ensure the stability of our infrastructure (and therefore our economy), strengthen consumer choice, and pave the way for innovative technology that reduces our environmental impact and financial burden.

Grid modernization efforts also create many new jobs in the energy sector. As we noted recently in regard to the Clean Power Plan, “studies have found that 16.7 jobs are created per million dollars of spending on clean power.” A major undertaking like grid modernization is likely to create hundreds (if not thousands) of good jobs across the country.

Innovators Lead the Way

As with every major cultural shift, technical achievement, or interruption of the status quo, innovative thinkers and creators are leading the way toward a new model of power creation and distribution. At Solar Design Studio, we’re proud to be a part of the solar and alternative energy industry as it makes noteworthy strides toward a stronger, better future. As innovative technology continues to reshape our lives for the better, we’re excited to bring that technology to our customers through our commitment to excellence in design and installation.

To learn more about grid modernization efforts and how you can prepare your home or business for the innovative changes to come, contact us today!

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