Santa Fe Institute

Delivering energy with tomorrow's power grid

March 30, 2016 9:18 p.m.

The big utilities are getting nervous. A century ago, the North American power grid was an unfolding technical marvel rooted in a nation’s way of life and delivering a clear public good.

Today, innovation in energy technology, regulatory changes, and shifting social values are de-centralizing the power supply. As more consumers install rooftop solar and home batteries, fewer draw from the power grid. Some states have enacted regulations to stop or slow certain disruptive changes. Others have viewed the progress as a prompt to re-think the utilities’ business models.

“What’s happening with the electric utilities in North America and around the world has a lot in common with what happened to the telecommunications companies at the advent of cell phones,” observes Seth Blumsack, an energy expert at Penn State who recently spent a sabbatical at SFI.

Blumsack is co-organizer of a workshop at SFI this week, with External Professor Jessika Trancik (MIT) and Professor Cris Moore, that will parse the complex nature of this transition in the electric power industry. The workshop – The Nature of Technological, Social, and Industrial Innovation and Transition in Power Generation and Delivery – brings scientists, historians, technology experts, engineers, and policy experts together to discuss creative ways to manage the ongoing and potentially disruptive transition.

Unlike two previous SFI workshops on the power grid, which focused on engineering power delivery systems, this week's workshop will explore social and regulatory issues and the role of innovation in our shifting electricity landscape.

“Energy conversion and storage technologies are evolving rapidly, and new low-carbon technologies are being installed in a rather uncoordinated way,” says Trancik. “Electric utilities are being forced to adapt, and in this workshop we hope to step back and understand the rate and characteristics of this transformation. We also plan to look at these changes within the context of history and other sectors of the economy.”

“In some cases, new technologies can enter disruptively, simply because they are cheap and popular,” Moore observes. “In other cases, there are significant barriers to entry based on how we have built our infrastructure, written our regulations, trained our engineers, and so on. It also depends on society’s default assumptions: for instance, why did my home come with a refrigerator but not with solar panels? Why will my mortgage company help me buy a bigger house, but not a more energy-efficient one?”

SFI provides a unique opportunity to bring together scholars from disparate areas to begin to explore these complex, interrelated questions, Blumsack says.

“What I’m hoping will come out of this workshop are ideas for modeling or research that capture how these technical and social and regulatory systems can become more coordinated,” he says. “I also hope we arrive at a more firm understanding of how all those systems impact one another.”

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