The power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy demonstrated that the reliability of our power grid is critical to Rhode Island’s economic, energy, and environmental future. For most of the history of the electric grid, the forgone conclusion has been that new transmission and distribution infrastructure, such as new circuits, new substations, or larger conductors, is central to meeting the objective of a safe, modern, and reliable energy system.
The truth is that there are often viable, cleaner, and lower cost alternatives to large scale capital projects. These “non-wires alternatives” (NWA)s, include options such as energy efficiency, demand response, dynamic pricing, combined heat and power, smart grid technologies, and small scale, clean distributed generation. NWAs are becoming increasingly cost-effective. Adopted alone or in combination, NWAs can replace or defer the need to construct new transmission and distribution infrastructure. In cases where the goal is to address local reliability, they can eliminate or defer the need for capital projects – for a lower net cost than traditional poles and wires.
Rhode Island is taking important and innovative steps to use these lower-cost, smaller scale alternatives to meet the challenge of constructing a safe, reliable energy system. In fact, it has in place a process under the state’s 2006 energy reform law that, when fully implemented, will greatly address new ways of providing reliable and clean electric service.
Pursuant to that law, in early 2012 the RI Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved National Grid’s System Reliability Procurement Plan designed to defer the need for a new substation feeder in the Tiverton and Little Compton region by at least four years. The region was selected for the pilot project because annual energy consumption in Tiverton and Little Compton is increasing by 1.4% and 1.1%, respectively, compared with an average rate of 0.5% for the rest of the utility’s territory. The project is using a combination of energy efficiency measures to reduce peak energy consumption from customers’ window and central air conditioners, lighting, and other appliances. Consideration is also being given to deploying cost-effective, renewable distributed generation to provide peak load relief. If the pilot is successful in achieving 1 megawatt of peak energy reduction, it will result in deferred construction of a new substation feeder estimated to cost $2.85 million and will generate almost $5 million in benefits to customers due to lower energy costs and deferred construction costs.
Over the next few months, the PUC will be considering whether to approve the continuation of this pilot project.
Rhode Island’s nation-leading investments in energy efficiency can also have a huge impact on reducing the amount of future transmission expenditure needed. New England’s regional electric grid operator, ISO-NE, recently released a new energy forecast that incorporates Rhode Island’s ambitious energy efficiency investments. The forecast projects that Rhode Island’s energy use will decline rather than increase due to more efficient use of electricity. A similar forecast for Vermont and New Hampshire has caused state regulators to cancel 10 planned transmission upgrades, saving an estimated $259 million. This confirms growing acceptance by grid operators and others that energy efficiency can alter demand forecasting and defer, or possibly avoid, the need to construct expensive new transmission lines.
Ensuring that electricity is delivered reliably and in a way that maximizes consumer and environmental benefits is critical to Rhode Islan. The grid of the past must change if we are to have a system that can take Rhode Island into a competitive economic future and clean, low carbon energy era. Rhode Island has an opportunity to usher in a new system that is clean, secure, and affordable.
The writer is the RI Director of ENE, a regional non-profit organization that researches and advocates for innovative environmental policies .