THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
New paths for power
Public Service commissioners lay groundwork today for tomorrow’s energy grid
Every work week is different for Kentucky’s three Public Service commissioners. Their busy travel schedules sometimes send all three men off to different destinations on the same day. And whether in the office or on the road, their days are packed with meetings with electric utility managers and workers, research scientists, and electricity consumers, as well as the PSC staff.
Much of this work is focused on finding answers to a big question: how can Kentucky adapt to changing ideas about electric power?
Chairman David Armstrong, Vice Chairman Jim Gardner, and Commissioner Charles Borders are also looking beyond Kentucky to confer with regional and national energy experts. They’re taking part in national policy
discussions and meeting with other utility regulators, all to try to figure out the practical details of what works—
and what needs more fine-tuning.
Instead of sitting still, Armstrong, Gardner, and Borders are on the move, laying the groundwork to prepare Kentucky for a new era in energy use.
National policymakers talk about big changes ahead. They say tomorrow’s power grid will feature:
• More renewable fuel use.
• More rules to protect the environment.
• More consumer involvement in making energy choices.
But how do we get from here to there?
To find the right answers for Kentucky, each commissioner has chosen an area to study in detail.
Armstrong is studying power transmission issues. More than 90 percent of Kentucky’s electricity comes from coal, and there are few options with today’s technology to increase large-scale in-state power production from wind or solar. If Kentuckians want a lot more renewable energy quickly, they’ll likely need to import it from other states.
“A new eastern interconnect is planned for the Midwest that will carry wind energy and other renewables into our energy grid to give us a greater diversity of fuels,” Armstrong says. But the job involves more than towers and lines. The new paths for power must be added in ways that keep the entire system reliable and safe.
As a member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), Armstrong joined its advisory committee to the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO). MISO is one of many regional transmission organizations that ensure bulk power from any source can move safely within and among states in different parts of the country.
Armstrong, currently the committee’s vice president, will become its president in 2012. Armstrong is also on a committee that confers with PJM Interconnection, another multi-state transmission management group that operates in part of Kentucky.
Armstrong says: “Being a part of these committees helps ensure the reliability of our energy here in Kentucky. It also gives me a chance to put Kentucky’s position on the table, and to have our views considered by other states.”
“We have to be ready”
Coal and the environment top Borders’ list of interests. He recently joined Armstrong on NARUC’s Subcommittee on Clean Coal and Carbon Sequestration.
Thinking about the potential for new regulations regarding the use of coal and how Kentucky might comply with them, Borders says, “We can’t wait until federal or state laws are enacted. When the time comes, we have to be ready.”
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that use fossil fuels is a complicated task. Capturing gases and permanently storing them underground sounds good, but the technology to do it is still in the early stages of development.
Borders recently visited a carbon capture pilot project at a West Virginia power plant. Later, he traveled to Lexington to examine several projects at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research.
Borders says, “I’ve been really impressed with the amount of progress scientists are making.” He says their work “could be critically important for keeping rates low for those who utilize coal to generate power.”
Using these new technologies in ways that will benefit utility customers in all states will require careful planning. Vice Chairman Gardner, another NARUC member, is co-vice chair of its Committee on Energy Resources and the Environment. Gardner says, “Anticipated new environmental laws will dramatically change how we use, consume, and pay for electricity.”
Gardner’s knowledge of the proposed smart grid, a complex system of digital technology to help manage power demand and supply, will help. In 2009, he co-chaired a national “Utility of the Future” conference, and he’s also a member of a joint NARUC and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Smart Grid Collaborative.
Smart meters, as a component of the smart grid and in conjunction with time-of-use or time-of-day rates, would offer consumers a way to see the different prices for electricity throughout each day and night. That information could help homeowners make better decisions about energy use.
Gardner has found two key issues about a smart grid system that need more work—determining consumer attitudes toward the change, and finding ways to inform consumers of their choices in such a new system.
In June, Gardner attended a national town meeting about the smart grid in Washington, D.C. “Utilities, state regulators, other government officials, vendors of the products such as smart meters and smart appliances, and computer experts all talked together,” Gardner says. “One of the key messages from this meeting was that in order to do it right, it’s got to have consumer education. That has to be a big component of the smart grid.” KL
CREATING TOMORROW’S EXPERTS
With a staff of about 100, the Public Service Commission regulates the activities of 1,500 utilities in various sectors, including electricity, natural gas, and water. To develop new talent, Chairman David Armstrong set up an internship program for law students at Northern Kentucky University, the University of Louisville, and the University of Kentucky.
In connection with the stimulus funding for energy research, the PSC is also offering a limited, one-time program of engineering internships for graduate students to get experience in applying today’s technology to help consumers.