Sen. Cantwell seeks scientific input on the future of the electric grid

July 15, 2016

Washington, D.C. – Today, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) requested guidance from the National Academies of Science and Engineering on next steps needed to update government policies related to the U.S. electric grid.

Just as the nature of telecommunications and that sector’s business models changed dramatically over the last quarter century, the electric grid is undergoing a fundamental transformation. From a largely analog system of one-way communication, centralized electric generation, the grid is moving toward two-way communication, and distributed electric generation and storage. These changes hold the promise of a more efficient and clean grid that empowers consumers.

There has been a rapid emergence of a new grid architecture, new technologies, new planning and operating techniques, and new business models. These developments make clear that government policy must be updated in response.

Although the government will not be the primary driver of changes to the electric grid, the government DOES have the capacity to fill gaps, smooth bumps, accelerate changes that have broad benefits and spread benefits geographically to jurisdictions that may welcome them but lack capacity to support them. 

Sen. Cantwell notes that pending provisions in the Senate energy bill under consideration in a conference committee, in addition to smart grid-related legislation passed in 2007 and 2009, are “important foundational support that should lead to next steps.” Sen. Cantwell then requests the National Academies to assist in identifying those next steps.

More specifically, she asks:

1. In the medium and long term, how is the electric grid likely to evolve in the United States andwhat end-state architecture, particularly with respect to the distribution network, should consumers and policymakers anticipate?

2. In terms of federal spending, what are the key “no-regret” investments and other strategic investments with a high probability of success that will help create a platform for a more efficient electric grid? For example, what kinds of analytical and stimulation tools are needed to understand the evolving nature of the grid?

3. Given a set of plausible development scenarios for wide deployment of distributed generation coupled with energy storage, to what extent should federal policy focus on (a) behind-the-meter technology and services, (b) grid design issues, including planning and operating techniques, to help accommodate utility-scale generation and storage services, or (c) both?

4. Without presupposing the types of business models that may prove successful in the future,what gaps exist in federal policy (such as poorly designed incentives or a lack of investment in a particular technology, planning and operating technique, or type of analysis) that will make it more difficult for utilities to recover costs or generate a competitive rate of return in operating, maintaining, upgrading, interconnecting, or utilizing the electric grid to buy or sell energy?

5. Given the increasing integration of advanced communications systems and the electric grid,how can the United States ensure a simultaneous integration of cybersecurity measures so that the medium-term and long-term benefits of modernizing the grid include maintaining system security? How can policymakers ensure that consumers don’t have to accept greater vulnerability as the price of greater connectivity?

Download a PDF of the letter here.