A recent WSJ piece by Gabriel Kahn, however, suggests the times they might be changing. Titled Renewable Energy's Potential May Be Understated, Kahn's piece talks not just to environmentalists and solar CEOs, but utility executives who appear to be rethinking their previous views on the limitations of distributed energy.
While utilities used to fret about the challenges of too much intermittent, distributed power, Kahn talks to Ted Craver, CEO of Edison International Inc—parent of Southern California Edison—who expects most of his new power to come from rooftop solar on his customers' homes and buildings. The era of the big, centralized powerplant—says Craver—is probably in decline. Due to a combination of cheaper renewables, better storage options and more sophisticated software being used to balance demand with supply, Craver sees the future of his industry looking more like eHarmony or eBay than the traditional utilities we have come to know and, well...know.
Meanwhile, an interview with Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid—the company that manages transmission networks in the UK and Northeast US—has a similar view of the future. He too has been taken by surprise by the rapid spread of solar, and suggests we need to rethink the very fundamentals of how our energy system works. Instead of grids being structured with massive centralized power plants providing steady "baseload electricity," and more massive centralized plants designed to fire up for very short periods of time when demand spikes, Holiday suggests we'll have a more nimble, decentralized grid. This future grid would focus on moving electricity from where it's currently stored and/or being produced to where it's currently needed, and would augments that process by helping to dial up or dial down demand according to what's available:
"The idea of baseload power is already outdated. I think you should look at this the other way around. From a consumer’s point of view, baseload is what I am producing myself. The solar on my rooftop, my heat pump – that’s the baseload. Those are the electrons that are free at the margin. The point is: this is an industry that was based on meeting demand. An extraordinary amount of capital was tied up for an unusual set of circumstances: to ensure supply at any moment."
Holliday also points to the fact that there'll be an interesting interplay between efficiency/conservation and the eventual electrification of much more of our power supply. While he expects UK electricity demand to stay flat for the next decade or so thanks to increased efficiency, Holliday eventually sees a huge switch to electricity for both transportation and heating—creating a massive increase in demand. In fact, says Holliday, the oil giants of today may well be looking to become the electricity suppliers of tomorrow.
In some ways, there's very little new here. From detailed roadmaps that point to 100% renewable energy to the potential for smart grids and demand response to increase adoption of renewables, TreeHugger has been raving about this stuff for years.
What's new, however, is who's joining us in saying it. It really is beginning to feel like the future is electric.