A report unveiled on Monday by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the future of the smart grid over the next two decades finds that the U.S. grid can stand up to the challenge of integrating electric vehicles as well as new sources of distributed and intermittent power generation—as long as certain policy changes are made.

The study titled “The Future of the Electric Grid,” is the sixth report in the MIT Energy Initiative’s Future of series. It assumes that meeting these challenges is necessary, cautioning that a “failure to realize these opportunities could result in degraded reliability, significantly increased costs, and a failure to achieve several public policy goals.”

The report’s authors say they seek to provide what they call a “comprehensive, objective portrait of the U.S. electric grid and the identification and analysis of areas in which intelligent policy changes, focused research, and data development and sharing can contribute to meeting the challenges the grid is facing.” Instead of performing original research, the authors integrated existing knowledge, hoping it will be of value to decision makers in industry and government, they say.

The most significant challenge facing the grid is the need to incorporate more renewable generation in response to policy initiatives at both state and federal levels. The report finds that current planning processes, cost-allocation procedures, and siting regimes will need to be changed to facilitate this expansion. It also suggests that increased penetration of renewable distributed generation will pose challenges for the design and operation of distribution systems and may raise costs for many consumers. “New regulatory approaches may be required to encourage the adoption of innovative network technologies.”

As electric vehicles grow in popularity, and if measures are not taken, they will increase the ratio of peak to average demand and further reduce capacity utilization and raise rates, the report says. “Changes in retail pricing policies, enabled by new metering technology, could help to mitigate this problem.”

The report also forecasts that opportunities will arise for improving the functioning and reliability of the grid, particularly from technological developments in sensing, communications, control, and power electronics. “These technologies can enhance efficiency and reliability, increase capacity utilization, enable more rapid response to remediate contingencies, and increase flexibility in controlling power flows on transmission lines,” the report says. “If properly deployed and accompanied by appropriate policies, they can … facilitate the integration of large volumes of renewable and distributed generation, provide greater visibility of the instantaneous state of the grid, and make possible the engagement of demand as a resource.”

Evolution of the smart grid will require that government and industry effectively tackle issues of standardization, cybersecurity, and privacy. Adequate progress has made, but “the diversity of ownership and regulatory structures within the U.S. grid complicates policy-making, and a number of institutional, regulatory, and technical impediments remain that require action.”

The report’s key recommendations include:

  • Renewables: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should be granted enhanced authority to site major transmission facilities that cross state lines so as to make easier the integration of remote renewables.
  • Cybersecurity threats: A single federal agency should be given responsibility for cybersecurity preparedness, response, and recovery across the entire electric power sector, including both bulk power and distribution systems.
  • Accelerating and paying for grid efficiency: Utilities with advanced metering technology should begin a transition to pricing regimes in which customers pay rates that reflect the time-varying costs of supplying power.
  • Improved decision making: More detailed data should be compiled and shared, including information on the bulk power system, comprehensive results from “smart grid” demonstration projects, and standardized metrics of utility cost and performance.

Sources: POWERnews, MIT