The ways electric utilities power communities have changed over time. Changes will continue as renewable energy sources become a regular part of the nation’s electric grid, driven by further developments in technology and demand for more affordable power.
The electric grid’s efficacy and durability depend on several sources of power generation, and electric utilities have invested in cutting-edge technologies to meet and predict consumers’ energy needs.
Publicly owned utilities continually monitor new technology, develop strategies for adapting to it and share best practices with fellow utilities to better serve their consumers.
Several revolutionary technologies for creating electricity are reshaping the future of power generation. Let’s take a look at a few that are currently on electric utilities’ radars.
Offshore wind farms provide many of the same benefits as land-based wind farms, including renewable energy production and job creation. Offshore wind also produces no greenhouse gas emissions.
Because the ocean provides more than enough space to install turbines, offshore wind is positioned miles out at sea, barely visible from the land and away from sea routes and ecologically sensitive areas.
An offshore wind farm consists of several turbines dispersed across a vast area of ocean. Each is solidly attached to a foundation piece on the seafloor and has a tower that extends into the air, where the blades may take advantage of greater wind speeds.
Often, wind speeds offshore are higher than on land. The wind is stronger, steadier and less turbulent than on land. This means more energy can be consistently produced.
Slight changes in wind speed result in substantial improvements in energy production: A turbine operating in winds of 15 mph can produce twice as much energy as one operating in winds of 12 mph.
Additionally, advancements in energy storage near wind farms will allow wind to deliver electricity when it is most needed.
Battery Energy Storage
Renewable energy solutions have their challenges, however. Electricity is used around the clock, but sunlight or wind cannot create energy 24 hours a day. Greater investments in energy storage projects to store the electricity created through renewable sources are needed.
To improve service reliability, Anza Electric Cooperative in Anza, California, recently installed battery storage banks powered by a solar field. The project—positioned in a remote mountain community with limited options for providing electricity—was completed in 2022 and totals 4.5 megawatts.
Because the batteries are fed directly from the solar array, the utility can provide electricity through its battery storage in the event of an outage—all day during daytime hours and two to four hours at night.
Anza Electric is positioned in one of the highest fire risk classification areas in the state. The single transmission line that supplies the utility with its electricity has been impacted by fires in the past.
“One of the main drivers behind our microgrid is our susceptibility to outages on our single import line,” says Kevin Short, Anza Electric’s general manager.
Thanks to that storage, if power stops flowing from the transmission line, most businesses downtown may not even realize there is an outage.
“Recently, we were subjected to an outage lasting a few hours on our import line for routine maintenance,” Kevin says. “While we could not keep our entire system online, our downtown area where most of our businesses and community services are located never missed a beat.”
The utility has not only seen improvements to reliability, but to energy affordability as well. Anza Electric uses the battery storage system to address peak load hours.
“We’re into our second year of an arbitrage program, discharging during daily peak demand times and recharging on solar the following day,” Kevin says. “This practice has saved us hundreds of thousands in purchased power costs—which helps keep our rates low—as well as adding resiliency to our system. It’s very interesting that an intermittent resource like solar has made this possible using our battery energy storage system.”
Energy storage is expected to expand significantly in 2023 following robust growth in 2022. As governments at all levels and companies broaden their carbon reduction goals, demand is rising for storage to hold energy produced by intermittent resources such as wind and solar.
Developers and power plant owners plan to increase utility-scale battery storage capacity in the United States nearly fourfold in the next three years, reaching 30 gigawatts by the end of 2025, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Nuclear energy has been a source of power generation for a long time, constituting approximately 15% of the fuel mix for 661 electric co-ops in the United States. In total, 93 commercial nuclear reactors operate in 28 states.
As the nation and the world work toward new sources of always-available electricity, many in the industry are keeping an eye on the development of a new wave of nuclear power plants that may be on the horizon, known as small modular reactors, or SMRs.
SMRs can generate carbon-free, reliable baseload power on a footprint comparable to that of a conventional coal-fired power plant. SMRs being developed in the United States come in a variety of sizes, technological options, capabilities and deployment situations. These advanced reactors, ranging in sizes from 10 MW to 300 MW or more, can be used for power generation, process heat, desalination and other industrial applications.
SMRs also provide numerous other benefits, including lower capital expenditures, the flexibility to be sited in regions inaccessible to larger nuclear facilities and the capacity for additional power expansions.
As the nation’s energy sources continue shifting, electric utilities remain committed to exploring the best sources and technologies for their local communities and the consumer they serve.