When IRESN took up the topic of “integrated renewable energy systems” a decade ago, we imagined an expanding renewable integration challenge driven by community-scale and building-scale renewable energy systems as well by utility-scale power plants. Now new technologies are changing what we imagined into a real and urgent challenge. The figure summarizes vectors of energy sector change that are already in effect. Collaborative planning will need to be local as well as regional.
It is time to recognize that a successful transition to a future decarbonized and more secure and resilient local infrastructure can’t be done at the state level or in silos at any level. It will depend on the expertise and capacities of both natural gas and electric utilities and their collaboration with counties and cities if it is to proceed as the fastest possible pace.
Natural gas utility collaboration with cities and counties must receive policy attention at least comparable to collaboration involving electric utilities. Current levels of reliability and resilience provided by natural gas utilities must carry forward continuously as hydrogen emerges as an enabler of the energy sector transition of the 21st Century.
What is the best mix of locally generated and imported energy from the perspectives of cost and resilience? The answer will be different for every community. Should we wait for the long-promised “smart electricity grid”? Or should our counties and cities take up the task of making local infrastructure not only smart but technically and economically well-integrated? If so, they will be wise to collaborate with incumbent energy utilities. And with local families and businesses as well.
The brilliant scientists who created nuclear weapons were appalled by what they had made possible. Nuclear war. During the Cold War, they saw humanity inching steadily toward self-annihilation. They started a movement among themselves to lobby for nuclear sanity. They used the image of a clock showing minutes to midnight to make plain the imminence of existential risk. It was on the cover of every issue of their monthly magazine, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The minute hand moved back a bit when disarmament negotiations showed progress. It moved forward when tensions rose, or nuclear sabers rattled. We called it the Doomsday Clock. Clearly, humanity was in uncharted territory, master of its own fate and hostage to its worst instincts.
There is anecdotal evidence of the need for collaboration. For proponents of local clean energy resources there is an even more basic question. Why energy resources that are both clean and local? The case is compelling.
Simply put, local¹ clean energy resources are happening, unevenly around the world, mostly, except for California, outside the US. They come in many sizes. So do utilities. So do cities. Maybe we need a common denominator if we are to connect dots more strategically and less anecdotally.