Restructuring a Green Grid: Legal Challenges to Accommodate New Renewable Energy Infrastructure
Suffolk University Law School
December 21, 2009
Environmental Law, Vol. 39, p. 977, 2009
Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-55
Things are never as simple as they might appear - and that is particularly true of understanding the demands on the new “smarter” grid. That “smarter” grid will include expanded renewable energy sources and new copper wire transmission to connect these new sources to load centers. Sounds simple, but there is much more to it to get it right. Electricity is our one form of energy that is not capable of efficient or low-cost storage; the grid must remain perfectly balanced second by second, or the power system collapses, as it did in California during its 2000–2001 electric system crisis, or in the eastern United States in August 2003.
There is much more to the grid than just poles and wires. It is a carefully balanced, second-by-second, replenished network of almost 5000 interconnected generating sources in the United States; modern society depends on speed-of-light movement of electrons over thousands of miles in a system that never creates a single new electron in the process. As the last of the regulated industries in America, legal conventions, fictions, and protocols decide where these electrons are delivered and consumed, although no actual consumption or possession of moving electrons actually exists. In this world of shadow and light, the author maintains that electric infrastructure in the twenty-first century is every bit as important a societal force as the more opined-upon oil and the automobile. While there are substitutes for oil, there are no substitutes for electricity in the information age.
This Article examines specific aspects of the new grid. As we move more to wind and solar power, these technologies are intermittent resources, which on an hourly basis ebb and flow in only partly predictable manners. What does this do to the grid? This will decentralize and alter the balance of resources and responsibilities in the electric network vertically, horizontally, and virtually. The heretofore largely hidden issue of whether the grid has the backup quick-start power resources to deal with this intermittency is examined - it doesn’t. Fights are already brewing on the financial value of intermittent renewable resources - some wanting to pay more for them, and others noting that they have less value for providing reliable power. The answers to this debate have profound social and financial consequences on the power future, and their legal issues are analyzed herein. How we physically extend the grid to accommodate new renewable power resources is examined. The role of distributed generation and cogeneration, as new active elements with environmental advantages, is analyzed. Welcome to the new “smart” grid with its pending legal and regulatory issues.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 39
Date posted: September 22, 2010