Utilities in California, Colorado and New York are working on combining solar panels, batteries and communication networks with the utility control room to fit more solar into the existing grid. According to a Wall Street Journal article in Monday's paper (March 6th, 2017), these 'virtual power plants' allow the utility to store excess solar energy during the day in batteries and use it in the evening and at night when the sun isn't shining. PG&E, a San Francisco based utility, is shutting down the last nuclear power plant in California in 2025 and is planning on investing $1 billion through 2020 to modernize its grid by incorporating batteries and intelligent communication to offset the loss in generation from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant. Consolidated Edison in New York has invested $200 million in a virtual power plant spread among several buildings in New York City that can decrease peak demand by as much as 52 megawatts. This virtual power plant allows the utility to smooth out its demand through out the day. By decreasing its peak demand by 52 megawatts it can delay installing roughly $1 billion in conventional power equipment (e.g. a new traditional power plant) for another 20 years.
Saving $800 million over 20 years by installing communication networks, batteries and solar panels seems like a good idea to me. PG&E's senior vice president of strategy and policy, Steve Malnight said in the article, "We are rethinking the grid and how it operates". I think this is very forward thinking of PG&E and something all grid operators across the country should be doing. Change is always hard and it seems to be especially difficult for entrenched industries such as electrical utilities, but that doesn't mean that their only course of action is active resistance to change. Accepting the changing landscape of power production and working with these new sources of production is much more productive than the alternative. California plans to get 50% of its power in 2030 from renewable sources and currently produces more peak power than it can use on certain days. On these sunny days in California, the state's utilities sell this excess power to neighboring states, sometimes at very low rates. With a smarter gird and storage capacity, they will be able to use more of their own solar energy and not export to neighboring states. Like all things solar, this concept can be scaled up or down. Individual cities or homes can use this same concept to increase self consumption of solar energy. As our homes become smarter they can intelligently control our appliances such as the water heater, dish washer, etc to turn on and off based on the production of the solar system on your roof and the state of charge of your home's batteries. Cities could do this on a neighborhood basis with a large battery bank installed for each city block for example. Intelligent use of energy through conservation, peak demand reduction and self consumption is one possible outcome for the grid. There are other power production options, but the smart choice is often the best choice.