EPRI’s View on Emerging Technologies

Writing in the January issue of POWER magazine, Arshad Mansoor (Senior Vice President of Research and Development at the Electric Power Research Institute) authored an article entitled “Emerging Technologies Enable ‘No Regrets’ Energy Strategy” to provide a soup-to-nuts vision of the future technology landscape for the electric power industry.

I don’t know that it’s possible that any player in the challenging U.S. electricity sector can pursue a path that is truly “no-regrets”, and it’s not easy to cover the gamut of technology possibilities of such a complex industry in one relatively brief article.  However, Mansoor’s essay does at least provide some visibility on the broad technology trends of the future, and lays out a taxonomy to consider the panoply of technologies that electric utilities will be facing in the years to come.

Mansoor begins by singling out the three key drivers facing the industry that imply “unprecedented change in the industry over the next 10 to 20 years — more change than in the previous 100 years”:

  1. The availability of natural gas and its increasing role in power generation.
  2. The expanding role of renewable generation.
  3. Technology challenges to reducing carbon dioxide, mercury and other emissions.

As an implication of these three forces at work, Mansoor outlines three categories of technologies that collectively represent a “no-regrets” approach:

  1. Flexible resources and operations.  This spans a variety of technologies to enable both the power grid and power generating sources to better accommodate the inherent variability of demand and an increasingly variable supply base in an uncertain world.  The range of technologies include energy storage, demand response, advanced transmission (e.g., HVDC, FACTS), improved software (for planning, forecasting and operational management), and fossil/nuclear powerplant operational flexibility.
  2. Long-term operations.  This seems to be centered on a variety of robotic technologies to improve the ability for utilities to remotely and efficiently monitor asset conditions and anticipate failures before they happen.
  3. An interconnected and flexible delivery system.  This covers a swath of technologies for power distribution and utilization under the umbrellas of “smart energy”, “grid resilience”, and “consumer-focused technologies”.  Smart energy covers standardization of communications protocols among the various devices on the grid, while capitalizing on the trend towards “big data”.  Grid resilience acknowledges the increasing concerns about security from man-made and natural disasters, with technologies ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles for damage assessment to using plug-in electric vehicles as a power source in the event of emergencies.  Consumer technologies acknowledges the trend towards ubiquity of the always-connected customer (not to mention utility employee), envisioning apps on smartphones and tablets to modulate or activate just about anything on the grid — from specific equipment at a powerplant or a substation to a particular light fixture at a house.

Alas, I think there are some gaps in this overview.  As a primary example, after acknowledging the prospect of tightening environmental regulations, Mansoor barely mentions air or water pollution control technology opportunities that electric utilities may need to consider — and it’s not clear where in his three categories such technologies would even fit.

So, I view Mansoor’s article as a good first starting point in developing a holistic perspective on the future of the electricity sector and how new technologies will reshape it.

It will be interesting to see if the industry evolves as much and as quickly as Mansoor asserts.  As one electric utility executive said to me and some colleagues many years ago, “no major innovation has been widely adopted in this industry unless and until it was essentially required by regulators.”  His point was that utilities are mainly judged by reliability and cost — and new technologies usually (at first) represent risk and entail higher cost than the status quo.  So, why exactly would utilities adopt something new?

I would like to hear EPRI’s take on why it believes that the electricity industry will change more in the next few decades than over the past century, especially given the dire political and economic situation facing the U.S. and the associated regulatory stalemates that are likely.  Perhaps Mansoor or his colleagues can write a follow-up article to address this very important question.