The case for more controllable loads -- and the 51st State | SEPA Skip to content

The case for more controllable loads — and the 51st State

Editor’s note: We welcome guest blogger Michael Jacobs of the Union of Concerned Scientists to talk about his organization’s plans for a submission for the Solar Electric Power Association’s (SEPA’s) 51st State Initiative, Phase II. The post reflects Jacobs’ views and in no way represents an endorsement by SEPA. If you are working on an idea for the initiative you would also like to share here, contact K Kaufmann, [email protected].

By Michael Jacobs

Supply follows demand.

This simple equation has been the foundation of the United States’ electric system since its birth more than 100 years ago. In practical terms, what it means is that the transmission and distribution system used to get our power from where it is generated to where it is used has to be designed and built to ensure reliability for times of highest demand.

Transmission Lines Generic

Demand has also been traditionally viewed as inelastic and uncontrollable — despite the recognition that daily and seasonal patterns of electricity use are the result of designs and choices made across the economy, often shaped by utility programs.

But what if we could alter this basic relationship to create an energy system that would provide signals and incentives to help people use power when it is actually most available and cheapest? What if we could create more controllable loads?

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) will be exploring this possibility in the submission it will be making to SEPA’s 51st State Initiative, Phase II.

Find out all about the 51st State, Phases I and II here.

The initiative comes along as UCS is combining our expertise in grid integration of renewables and clean vehicle technology. The organization has made a two-year commitment to study the interaction between high levels of rooftop solar and high levels of electric vehicle adoption. The issues we will focus on relate to the scale of adoption, impacts on the distribution grid, economic incentives to charge vehicles to improve grid operations or provide ancillary services, and how these strategies can serve as a starting point for the wider use of controllable loads.

Our interest in the initiative stems from our long-running work on minimizing climate change. Renewable energy growth is vital to supply energy to society without increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and UCS sees broader electrification of the economy as a key strategy for advancing both renewables and emissions reductions.

New technologies, new tensions

The advances that allow consumer appliances to help integrate renewables have come to market at the same time as consumer-owned solar generation. In this, we see a paradigm change unfolding, away from the traditional view of load as inelastic and uncontrollable.

But we also see tension between the changes triggered by new technology, and the practices and assumptions that have organized the electricity industry for nearly a century. In addition to business practices and revenue models not aligned with consumers’ new role as energy producers, renewable energy introduces supplies that operate with zero marginal costs and typically little or no control as to timing.

Indeed, the growth in wind and solar energy supplies on the power grid is increasingly identified as a problem because of the potential mismatch between renewable energy production and times of highest energy use. Examples are seen in several settings:

— Arguments over the value of net metering for solar, which is used to account for the energy produced at times when that production exceeds owner demand.
—Operational needs to meet total electric system demand after the sun sets; that is, the steep early evening ramp in demand depicted in the chart widely known as the duck curve.
— Determinations of capacity needs that increase investment in fossil generation due to the discounting of wind and solar contributions to peak demands.

Duck Chart _CAISO-1
The original duck curve chart developed by the California Independent System Operator, based on net load from March 31,2012 to March 31, 2020.

As already noted, in the electric power sector, the times of greatest demand determine most utility investments and the value placed on new sources of generation. The usual debate over the value of wind and solar is defined in these terms.

Actions and incentives that change the timing of peak demands can change the value of wind and solar to the electric power system. Integration of renewables without increasing costs depends on the flexibility available in the power system to adjust to the changes in wind and solar.

Ultimately, a shift in thinking that encourages the load to follow the energy supply, and moves a greater portion of energy use to periods when renewable energy is abundant will allow society to rely on more renewable energy and less fossil fuel.

What people want

UCS is examining a range of policies that could promote changes to timing of energy loads and peak contributions. We see a continuum of possibilities here — from utility programs and direct control signals to time-varying price signals to system-to-consumer and peer-to-peer transactions organized on market-based communications.

We do this as we promote consumer-sited and -owned technologies — from appliances with embedded grid services to new storage systems — that allow increases in renewable energy and electrification that substantially reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions. We will develop ways and means to communicate these changes to the public and policy makers, as we advocate for changes and technology that are appropriate for the consumer, the energy system, and a sustainable future.

Want to submit a 51st State road map? Sign up for SEPA’s upcoming 51st State webinar here.

UCS welcomes the opportunity to collaborate under the umbrella of the 51st State Initiative. We see the project, and its focus on practical road maps to energy system transition, as a framework for constructive dialog on the designs and decisions that will reduce peaks, spread demand and allow greater grid integration and higher value for wind and solar.

With the complexity of this subject, the long history of past practices and the new paradigms unfolding so quickly, members of the industry and the advocacy community will benefit from participation in this initiative.

As Henry Ford may or may not have said about the market for automobiles — “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” We enter this discussion knowing that the answers will not be obvious and the future will not arrive everywhere at the same time.

Michael Jacobs is Senior Energy Analyst with UCS. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information on UCS, visit