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Mark Gabriel, the CEO of United Power, says transmission is nice but his and other utilities must embrace what is close at hand

 

Mark Gabriel, chief executive of United Power, makes a case that the future has arrived: edge-of-grid technologies.

As for transmission – yes, it’s important, he says. Just don’t count on it to solve problems any time soon.

“Thinking that the world will continue to operate in a linear fashion – central generation to transmission to distribution to the meter – is as dangerous as thinking all computers will be physically linked to mainframes or that calling someone requires connections via hard wire strung on ‘telephone poles,’” he writes in his latest essay published by Energy Central, an on-line journal for energy professionals.

Renewables and natural resources consultant Wood McKenzie defines grid edge as an umbrella term that covers all the distributed hardware, software, and business innovations that exist in proximity to the end users rather than at the center of a traditional generation network.

“The grid edge can be leveraged by both customers and utilities to help decarbonize the grid and unlock new value streams while maintaining and enhancing reliability,” says Wood McKenzie. The name comes from the proximity of these elements to end users and away from centralized generation. Key examples include EV charging infrastructure, behind-the-meter resources, heat pumps, and grid modernization.

Think of the house in Brighton or Basalt or that has solar collectors, a Tesla wall battery and an F-150 Electric Lightning in the driveway.

Transmission? Gabriel points out that for eight years he ran the Western Area Power Administration network of wires, “one of the largest transmission systems in the world.” He adds: “I love big iron.”

The reality? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates 91,000 miles of new transmission needs to be constructed by 2035 to meet current decarbonization goals. Just 670 miles went on line in 2022.

Gabriel urges the electrical industry to embrace edge-of-grid technologies. Not as efficient as electricity where utilities control much—and at scale. But that is the reality.

He cites experience at United Power’s service territory in northern Colorado to buttress his case.

“Electric vehicles and solar inverters are a prime example of technologies that may be vilified for the potential to create problems on the grid when they should be welcomed with open arms,” he writes. “The current narrative, especially for EV naysayers, is that circuits will be overloaded and transformers will burn up in a Ralph Breaks the Internet way.” The experience at United, he added, has been the opposite.  “There has been a huge uptick in EVs (roughly 6,000 total in the United Power service territory) plus nearly 11% solar penetration, and yet, transformer failure due to overloading has dropped to near zero.”

Takeaways?

  • The edge-of-grid technology is advancing far more rapidly than the transmission system and central generation can or will. Batteries, solar panels, electric vehicles and intelligent system management deploying computing and communications will occur regardless of the incumbent utility’s desire to slow down their advancement.
  • Tried-and-true economic models will not hold up in a world of options.
  • Electrification of everything cannot wait for new transmission, especially in the western United States.

 

Allen Best
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