Dispatches from Summer Study: A Night in the Life of the Summer Study

The Monday night plenary speaker at the 2012 American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) Summer Study of Energy Efficiency in Buildings, held every two years in beautiful Asilomar, California, was Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Wellinghoff described his coming to FERC in 2006 as a border crossing from the world of energy efficiency—according to Steve Nadel, before joining FERC, Chairman Wellinghoff attended 12 Summer Studies—to the world of the grid and the wholesale power marketplace. Now he sees his mission as inte­grating the two.

Using a colorful map of the Midwestern United States, Wellinghoff described a grid in need of some more coordination, so that electricity load and production correlate more directly, therefore causing the electricity grid to operate more efficiently. A system in steady state is more efficient than one that is constantly ramping up and down—this is true of cars, HVAC systems, and the electricity grid.

In Wellinghoff’s example, the blue states are the ones with an overabundance of electric power, making it relatively cheap (even dipping below zero cost), and the red states, the ones where electricity is scarce and expensive. At 1 am the area around Terre Haute, Indiana, is desper­ate for electric power, while up north in Illinois, nuclear power is cheap and plentiful and west­ward in Iowa, wind generation is at a peak. Up by Fort Wayne they are burning kilowatts for next to nothing. Through the course of the day the map constantly turns colors, with hot spots (expensive electric power) and cool spots (cheap power) covering large swaths of the map or popping up in particular locations. In the afternoon, Michigan is dark red and across Lake Michigan, Jainsville, Wisconsin, is a dark blue spot.

Making the whole map bluer, so to speak (no reference to political affiliations intended), requires digital controls at end uses, transmission, and production. It requires the participation of homeowners as well as factory bosses. On the residential end use side, Wellinghoff sees price signals offering individuals the greatest opportunity for control of their energy and the cost of that energy. This is a great opportunity for people to participate more directly in the grid. Imagine utility customers becoming utility partners. Imagine providing power back to the grid from your car battery, and getting paid for it!

Add efficiency to the mix, and you not only increase the load factor, i.e. better match production and load, create a more efficient grid, and lower energy costs, but you can lower overall energy use as well.

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