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What does a 21st century electricity grid look like?

What does a 21st century electricity grid look like? A couple of different visions recently crossed our radar, one from the White House and the other from the Minneapolis-based New Rules Project.

The White House report, “A Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid: Enabling Our Secure Energy Future,” was released last week and emphasizes four key pillars: smart grid investments, innovation in the electricity sector, empowering consumers and securing the grid.

“In a 21st century grid, smart grid technologies will help integrate more variable renewable sources of electricity, including both utility scale generation systems such as large wind turbines and distributed generation systems such as rooftop solar panels, in addition to facilitating the greater use of electric vehicles and energy storage. Moreover, such technologies will help enable utilities to manage stresses on the grid, such as peak demand, and pass savings on to consumers as a result,” the report says.

GreenTechGrid writes that the plan calls for a federal Smart Grid Innovation Hub, which would be used to consolidate and share research and best practices. The White House plan also calls for rethinking regulations so that utilities have greater incentive to conserve energy, and it says consumers should be empowered with more tools and information to manage their energy use.

The New Rules report, “Democratizing the Electricity System: A Vision for the 21st Century Grid,” released on Wednesday, focuses on distributed generation as an alternative to large, centralized power plants. It points to examples in Hawaii and Las Vegas where smaller-scale solar and wind is being successfully integrated into the power grid.

“The 20th century of electricity generation was characterized by ever larger and more distant central power plants. But a 21st century technological dynamic offers the possibility of a dramatically different electricity future: millions of widely dispersed renewable energy plants and storage systems tied into a smart grid,” the report says.

The report likens the transition to the way the Internet and Wikipedia have displaced the library encyclopedia. Under this vision, homes and business become electricity producers as well as consumers. This creates economic benefits for local communities, but it also reduces efficiency losses from long-distance transmission and minimizes the need for backup and peaking generation plants.

John Farrell, author of the New Rules report, said in an email that the White House report “has the right elements of the 21st century grid (renewable energy, efficiency and demand response, and smart grids), but it maintains the unnecessary, top-down utility ‘grid-lock.’” Citizens remain consumers rather than producers under the White House vision, Farrell said, “selling short the opportunity to democratize the electricity grid alongside the inevitable transition to 100 percent renewable energy.”

Meanwhile, GreenBiz.com reports that GE and Best Buy announced a partnership on Thursday to fast-track two smart-grid home energy products. The technologies won a crowdsourced innovation contest. VPhase allows people to reduce the incoming voltage to their home. The other, Suntulit, is a smart air-conditioner technology that considers room temperature and occupancy.

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