Report: Future of North American Power Grid Hinges on Renewables

A report released on March 16 by the District of Columbia-based ISO/RTO Council (IRC) – an affiliation of independent electric grid operators – concludes that the future of the North American power grid depends on smart and renewable energy solutions.

IRC members serve two-thirds of electricity consumers in the United States and more than half in Canada. The factors identified by the council are as follows:

  • Adding renewables to the grid,
  • Making accurate data available from “behind-the-meter” resources to provide more situational awareness to grid operators, and
  • Coordinating distributed energy resources at the grid-operator level to preserve reliability.

The report, Emerging Technologies: How ISOs and RTOs Can Create a More Nimble, Robust Electricity System, is the result of more than a year’s work by the council.

 In its “Executive Summary,” the authors observe that, looking at a map of North America, it is obvious that regional transmission organizations have led the charge on renewable technology.

Specifically, they say, “A simple inspection of a map of North America reveals a striking trend: 80.3 percent of all wind capacity on the continent is now located in IRC regions.1 A similar trend is apparent for solar energy, with 81.1 percent of its capacity situated in regions served by IRC members. 2 The reasons for this may be varied, but the overall trend is undeniable: The reliable integration of renewables into North America’s electricity system has, in no small part, depended on the efforts of the IRC membership. As this report shows however, the ongoing effectiveness of renewable technologies will depend directly on the electricity system’s capacity to accommodate them.”

Unanimously, they see a high-DER future for the bulk electricity system. Indeed, in revealing the results of the report, the IRC Chair Nick Brown, who also is CEO of the Southwest Power Pool, noted “It can’t be overstated how remarkable it is that so diverse a group of organizations –serving in vastly different geographic regions and operating in varied regulatory and operational circumstances – overlap so much in their thinking on the role of emerging technologies in reliably and economically operating the North American bulk electricity system.”

He added, “Any time the IRC speaks with strong consensus on a matter like it has done here, I hope our industry takes notice.”

The IRC’s Operations Committee formed a task force in summer 2015 to examine the deployment of particular emerging technologies across the regions served by members. The Emerging Technologies Task Force (ETTF) specifically sought to identify where technological deployment intersects with operational and policy considerations.

 “Each of the IRC member organizations is unique,” said Edward Arlitt of Ontario’s IESO, who served as chair of the ETTF. “One ISO/RTO may have greater solar capacity in their region, another may be farther along in their handling of DERs, and all of us have regulatory and operational constraints unique to the provinces, states and regions in which we serve. No matter our specific circumstances, though, we all have to keep the lights on and can agree on issues of common importance to that goal.”

 Finally, the council “is agnostic to specific technologies that may be applied to the challenge of integrated renewable power sources.” For example, the IRC recommends approaches that avoid too-early technological “lock-in” and that equip grid operators to remain nimble in their assessment of new technologies.

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