The New Energy Landscape

We all know there are things we can do that reduce our energy use, and we also understand the importance of doing that – we’ll be more comfortable in our home, spend less on our utility bill, and reduce our energy footprint. But are there other reasons to change how we use energy? How energy is produced and distributed is changing quickly and altering the Energy Landscape in ways that are not entirely visible to most of us. In order to understand why taking energy reduction seriously is becoming more and more necessary, we need to think about something many of us have not really thought about much: the electrical grid.

It’s sort of like the road system – we don’t pay a lot of attention to how or where roads are built or how they’re maintained until there is a pothole or a traffic jam or the snow isn’t plowed – we just drive. Similarly, we don’t think much about how electricity is produced and delivered to us. We just flip the switch and expect the lights to go on. Until there is a problem.

Electricity production and distribution is changing in ways that will require us to not just be consumers of energy, but to be a more aware consumer of energy, work with each other, and with the new realities of the grid in order to make the system work better into the future. These changes are also requiring our utility company to create a relationship with its customers that they have never had before – one that is not just about delivering power to us and collecting our money.

To understand what’s going on, let’s create a quick sketch of how the grid has traditionally operated. Start with your home. There are wires coming into your home through a “breaker box” usually in the basement or inside your apartment. On the outside of the house there is an electric meter that registers how much electricity is being used in your home. Maybe you have seen the little disks going around, and the dials. Wires come to the meter from the utility pole nearest your home, and the utility poles connect wires from other homes. On the poles are transformers which “step down” or decrease the voltage in the wires till it is safer to enter your home. The pole wires travel some distance to an electricity substation where wires from several strings of utility pole wires come together, and the voltage is again stepped down from what is entering the substation. Electricity comes to the substation from those huge high voltage lines that march across the landscape. The utility company has a Control Room that manages all the electricity traffic on these lines.

The utility, in our case NYSEG (New York State Electric and Gas Corporation), buys electricity wholesale from a variety of electricity generators, and sends it along the wires, eventually to our homes.The energy is produced from burning natural gas or oil or coal, or from nuclear power plants or hydroelectric power plants, or solar and wind power farms. Most of the electricity used in our county has been generated from nuclear power plants, natural gas, and hydroelectric sources.

So what’s changing?

First, there is more and more demand for electricity as more buildings are built, population increases, and we get more and bigger gadgets and appliances that need electricity, including electric vehicles.We are also switching from natural gas for heating homes and water to heat pumps, which are more efficient and run on electricity. This increased demand could be met by building new power plants. But that is a very expensive solution, and the costs would be passed on to consumers in rate hikes.

Second, we are moving away from fossil fuels because of the green house gas emissions they produce (carbon dioxide and methane). So we don’t want to build any more of those expensive and dirty power plants. So where are we going to get the extra electricity that we need? You can see what’s coming, right?

Yes, Third, we are moving towards more renewable energy, including solar, wind, and hydropower. The grid will increasingly be powered by wind, solar, and hydro as we move toward both our electricity and our heat supplied by renewables.

More than 1100 homes and 162 businesses/non-residential buildings in Tompkins County have installed solar panels. We have six completed solar farms in the county, and more are planned. Nearby wind turbines and wind farms also feed electricity back onto the grid – over 300 across the state, but none yet in Tompkins County.

So what’s the problem?

Energy used to flow one way on the electrical grid – from the big power plants to the Control Room and across the landscape to our little utility poles. But with more and more buildings installing solar panels, and solar and wind arrays beginning to be built, electricity is now flowing from our homes and businesses onto the wires, and from wind and solar farms into the substations.Now the grid is not just one-way anymore.This “distributed energy” is requiring the grid to handle a two-way flow of electricity, which it was never designed to do. Utility companies everywhere are trying to figure out how best to manage this new situation.

The task is made more complicated because both wind and solar installations cannot produce energy continuously. Hydroelectric plants, like the one at Niagara Falls, can produce day and night, every day. Fossil fuel plants can produce as needed, ramping up or scaling back day by day depending on need. But the sun doesn’t shine on our panels all the time, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. These renewable installations produce electricity intermittently, and the energy isn’t necessarily available when most needed.

But Renewables are the Future, So What’s the Solution?

Well, there are many possible solutions. One would be for the utility companies to figure out how to create storage for large amounts of electricity produced by wind and solar, so that it could be available when needed. But a quicker and easier solution is for all of us to use less energy.

If renewables are going to be able to meet all our demand we need to reduce our demand. Storage and renewables can fill the gap, but not at the current level of use.

Customers are typically not aware of when we are using electricity or how much we are using. If we can move from a passive relationship to our energy to a more active approach, then we are participating in making the energy future better. Utility companies would very much like us to reduce our energy use, while they work as fast as they can to upgrade the utility wires and other infrastructure, make it possible for more renewable energy to come on to the grid, and figure out the storage problem. A new collaboration is required between utility company and customers to manage these changes. Locally, NYSEG is offering to help by making it easier to button up our homes so they waste less energy, making it cheaper (through their Smart Solution website) to buy energy efficient tools and devices (like LED lightbulbs and programmable thermostats), and providing ways for us to track our energy use.

For our part, just becoming more aware of our energy habits would be a great start. We can think about what is using energy in our homes and look for ways to use less.  We can find out where our home is wasting energy, and get those issues fixed. We can switch to renewables wherever possible, including buying our electricity from a local solar farm. We can talk about energy, to family, friends, coworkers, and make it more of a normal thing to discuss. We can talk to people at our workplace, or to our landlord about the energy efficiency of their buildings. If we support large scale wind and solar projects locally fossil fuel production can quickly ramp down. And we can support people to get training in the new technologies, especially those whose jobs in the fossil fuel industry are disappearing.

As a community we can increase our awareness of energy in general – how it is produced and how we use it – and that will help move us in the direction we need to go. We’re well on our way. Let’s see if the grid can keep up with us!

Last updated August 16, 2018