The way we power our world is changing. While electricity is one of the greatest wonders of science, as we’ve relied more heavily on it to power our lives over the years, it’s coming at the cost of the health of our planet. Although electricity is a relatively clean form of energy on its own, the generation, and transmission of electricity wheezes the second-largest share of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. What’s worse, nearly 61 percent of utility-scale electricity in the US was generated from fossil fuels in 2021. Fortunately, there are alternatives to using fossil fuels to generate electrical energy.
Renewable energy sources used to be fairly inaccessible to the average property manager, and extremely expensive to acquire. “10 years ago, it was much cheaper to build a new power plant that burns fossil fuels than to build a new solar photovoltaic (PV) or wind plant,” said Max Roser, founder and director of the publication Our World Data, “but in the last few years this has changed entirely.” Wind and solar have reached all-time low prices in the last decade, solar power in particular. Tweaks to developing solar panels, like trimming the manufacturing process down and replacing the expensive silicon semiconductors with ones made with cheap perovskite, have drastically reduced the cost of each solar panel, ultimately leading solar to be dubbed the “cheapest electricity in history” by the International Energy Agency in 2020. This economic shift in renewable energy is resulting in hundreds of gigawatts of generation.
However, the wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine. We often talk about renewable energy as the primary method to solve the climate crisis, but as temperatures continue to climb, favorable conditions for renewable energy production are becoming more and more intermittent. Even so, the traditional generation-and-transmission grid infrastructure just can’t handle the increased strain as our infrastructure expands and we require more flexible power solutions. “Peak demand is rising all over the world, putting significant strain on electric grids. Traditional grids use gas peaker plants to provide power during peak demand, but they’re very polluting. The electric grid needs to be more flexible to enable the penetration of renewables and ensure reliable and cost effective electricity,” Derek Lim Soo, CEO of Peak Power, explained. “New digital energy assets such as smart buildings, batteries, and electric cars can build flexibility into how we produce and consume electricity. With collaboration between building hosts, digital energy asset owners, and utilities, we can create an interactive grid.”
An interactive grid is an electricity network that allows for a two-way flow of electricity and data, as well as the detection, reaction, and prevention of changes in usage and other difficulties, using digital communications technology. Grid modernization has become a catch-all term for turning a traditional one-way power grid into an interactive grid. In particular, grid modernization entails the use of sensors, computers, and software for the grid to understand how much power it needs to produce as well as adjust to receiving different forms of power.
If a power grid can’t stay balanced, that instability results in higher energy costs that erratically fluctuate, which makes it next to impossible to accurately forecast peak energy demand. Demand for electricity, just like the weather, may be reasonably forecasted but not controlled, and the problem with having no control over demand is that you end up overbuilding supply. In order to cope with sporadic power demand, forecasting and real-time communication between utilities and consumers has become a vital component for resilient energy infrastructure. Thankfully, we’re increasing our use of clean energy, but in order to use clean, renewable energy to its fullest potential, our power grid must be able to integrate alternative energy and seamlessly switch between power sources in order to compensate for a lapse in energy source (like on cloudy days when solar panels aren’t pulling as much sunlight) or a change in power demand. Today’s more sophisticated grid control technology uses machine learning and real-time data analytics to detect and redistribute electricity from areas of surplus and excess demand in the blink of an eye, all while maintaining a steady and secure power supply.
An interactive grid is built around more than just customer demand. It’s a two-way grid that can produce as well as receive power. The shift towards the interactive grid in lieu of the traditional one-way power grid is ushering in a new paradigm of active distribution with the energy prosumer. A prosumer draws energy from the grid as well as self-generated energy through rooftop solar panels or other generating equipment, while also injecting excess electricity back into the grid.
“Energy consumers are becoming prosumers,” said Patrick Lee, CEO of PXiSE Energy Solutions. “Commercial and industrial business owners are generating their own power through renewables like solar PV and wind for their own resiliency and economic benefit. Enabling and incentivizing these prosumers to sell excess energy back to the grid will help fill the gap as we wean ourselves off fossil fuel power plants and increase electrification.”
Interactive grid infrastructure, such as energy transmission, distribution, and generation, is designed to satisfy peak energy demands. Power demand spikes may only occur a few times each year, but because much of the system’s capacity is underutilized for the majority of the year, this is a costly solution to satisfying needs. Prosumers can directly impact when and for how long power demand spikes by selling energy to the grid, or by using as little power as possible during peak demand hours.
The introduction of an interactive grid presents a chance to drastically reduce peak electricity demand. Instead of putting all our eggs in one proverbial basket with one power plant, we can harness alternative energy sources which are more capable of responding rapidly to the dynamic conditions of today’s grid. As Patrick Lee of PXiSE phrases it, “Managing all these small and distributed power sources is a puzzle, but it’s one that software is well-positioned to solve.”