Maintaining reliable and safe energy will take two major shifts:
- A proactive effort to upgrade and maintain electrical and natural gas distribution networks
- Development of smart grid technologies and a distributed approach to energy generation that will make the grid more responsive and reliable.
Minneapolis’s energy distribution system is aging, much of it developed in the early part of the 20th century. Maintenance has been minimal and outages and surges are frequent. In the natural gas sector, we have seen an increasing number of gas explosions and other accidents in recent years, a major safety hazard as well as a business disruption. Our basic distribution systems for energy need accelerated maintenance and modernization to remain viable. The system has been left to decay for too long, with band-aid improvements to fix each individual problem as quickly and cheaply as possible, often without resolving the underlying problems of aging and outdated infrastructure.
The Minneapolis Energy Options campaign has been asked why we think the city should explore taking over a distribution system that seems decrepit and in need of so much repair, in essence letting our current utilities off the hook for the better job they should have done. While our campaign again thinks Minneapolis should explore all options including renewing our current utility agreements with more provisions to ensure reliability, there are three reasons we think a city-owned utility might make sense from a reliability provision:
- If our current utilities have let our energy distribution system erode to this level, is it really smart for the city to continue to count on them to maintain it? How do we now that the investments in the thorough and systematic overhaul we need will actually be made. Ensuring that the responsibility for upkeep is in the hands of those who use our local energy grid may be our best bet to ensuring it gets done.
- If the system is really as bad as has been suggested, it isn’t worth very much and would not cost Minneapolis as much to buy. Just like buying and fixing up a damaged house, we might have to spend significantly on the repairs, but the property itself should come cheap.
- Nationwide, city-owned energy utilities on average have fewer hours of outages, faster response times to disasters, and better-maintained infrastructure than investor-owned utilities. City-owned utilities generally maintain more staffing for basic maintenance and pay more attention to local repair concerns.
Transition to a Smart Grid:
Historically, our energy system has relied on large centralized energy supplies mostly well outside of the city being transported long distances into the city (high voltage power lines and natural gas distribution networks). While this kept things simple with relatively few facilities to manage, it has also hindered local energy reliability since we are dependent on a few very large channels for getting energy and have almost no energy resources in our community. In the digital age, smart grid technologies have emerged that allow us to transform the way we structure and manage energy generation and distribution, with much more energy generated close to where it is used and a massive array of local energy sources that back each other up. Smart grid technology can communicate instantaneously about power production and usage and shift production, consumption, and distribution to better match resources to needs. The technologies available to make this shift range widely from devices on substations and transformers to feedback devices that utilities energy users can use to manage energy use. Saver’s Switch, a program Xcel Energy uses to manage power consumption by air conditioners and electric hot water heaters, is a basic example of this approach.
Making this shift could create dramatic improvements in reliability when matched with small-scale energy generation distributed throughout our communities and energy storage. During high energy use periods, a smart grid could simultaneously draw on stored energy and send signals either to energy users (for example via a cell phone) or directly to devices like thermostats and more complex energy management systems to reduce energy use. This can avoid blackouts and power surges without requiring even more large-scale infrastructure that is only used in peak events to pump more energy into our communities.
Smart grid technologies and systems are very much emerging, so it is unclear exactly what it will look like over the next couple of decades, but it is a promising realm of options that Minneapolis should explore.