Navigant Research Blog

Regulating the Energy Cloud

Mackinnon Lawrence — April 8, 2015

As discussed previously on the Navigant Research blog (Offense and Defense and Open or Closed?), the electrical grid is evolving toward an energy cloud model in which two-way energy flows support distributed energy resource (DER) integration, transactive energy, and other complex market structures and transactions. Representing a platform on which stakeholders will engage to facilitate greater coordination and sophistication in selling and consuming energy, this network of networks has the potential to be far more flexible, dynamic, and resilient than the traditional grid. These changes are detailed in Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Energy Cloud.

But ensuring reliable, safe, and cost-effective service—the core focus of utilities—is not guaranteed merely by the energy cloud’s emergence. An enforceable regulatory model will need to emerge that balances innovation and the economic benefits of open market competition with the need to maintain interoperability and coordination across a network made up of many layers of disparate elements.

Avant Garde

Today, we’re witnessing a period of rapid experimentation with respect to regulating utilities of the future in the energy cloud. The dramatic rise of DER on the grid has pressed regulators and utilities alike to respond.

Although many factors will determine how the energy cloud will evolve across different markets, states like New York, Hawaii, and California remain at the vanguard of regulatory experimentation in the United States.  In New York, for example, regulators have proposed initiatives to transform utilities into so-called distributed systems platform providers that would act as the interface between consumers and the bulk power system. Other states (e.g., Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the Carolinas) are beginning to explore alternative models as well, but have yet to challenge the utility’s role as the owner and operator of the distribution system.

The issue of who ultimately owns the distribution grid is at the heart of the energy cloud’s evolution. On one hand, the government and the public want to increase competition to achieve lower cost and additional service for customers. On the other hand, the increased complexity and cost to manage distributed intermittent resources across the grid could drive reregulation and consolidation.

Independent Operator

In the latter case, few challenge the need for a centralized authority to do so. Proponents of this approach, such as former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman Jon Wellinghoff, support the creation of an independent distribution system operator to manage the distribution grid even if utilities ultimately own the system.

This trend stands in direct opposition to a historic transition toward deregulation in the United States that is already underway. Deregulated markets are expected to allow for more experimentation with respect to business models, thus creating a competitive market for power generation and allowing retail customers to decide who supplies their electricity. However, a lack of standardization and coordination within these markets could make it much more difficult to ensure reliable, safe, and cost-effective operation due to a high level of market fragmentation. The growing footprint of DER, for example, requires much tighter integration and a stronger coordination of demand and supply across the energy value chain.

While it might seem that over-regulation or reregulation would stifle innovation, with respect to the energy cloud, the opposite may in fact prove true. Regulated markets, it turns out, may provide more stable platforms for a coordinated rollout of energy cloud infrastructure and capabilities.

Jan Vrins contributed to this blog.

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