Spotting Opportunities to Innovate


Two years ago, RAP produced a Menu of Options  for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the power sector for the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. The report contains 26 detailed chapters, 25 of which look at proven technologies for reducing power-sector GHG and other pollutants, and at various policies that have also been demonstrated to promote or facilitate emissions reductions.

In recognition that the power sector is changing rapidly and utility customers are demanding cleaner resources, the Menu’s final chapter, Chapter 26, looks at emerging technologies and policies that have the potential to further reduce power-sector GHG emissions. Rather than offering a thorough compilation of promising but unproven options or a prediction of specific future developments, the chapter offers examples of the kinds of innovative, promising technologies and policy ideas that regularly arise over time and reminds readers that new and unexpected options will emerge.

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and others prove this point with their recent report, Catalyzing the Market for Automated Emissions Reductions, that describes the potential for what they call “automated emissions reduction” (AER).

RMI’s Mark Dyson, James Mandel, and Gavin McCormick write that AER is a “customer-facing service” that builds upon recent research capable of identifying signals from the power grid that marginal emission are rising or falling. This can reduce pollution by “shifting the timing of end-use loads to move consumption into the cleanest possible intervals, allowing customers to significantly reduce the environmental impact of their energy use.” They note that, at scale, this technology is capable of significantly reducing electricity-sector carbon emissions.

What makes AER so compelling is that it represents the capacity to connect and secure the environmental benefits of other recently emerging technologies and policies, many of which were highlighted in various chapters of the Menu, including:

  • Demand response (utilizing end-use devices and systems to reduce the demand for electricity at certain times to meet the operational needs of the grid);
  • Device-to-device communications (often called the “internet of things,” an increasingly interconnected, responsive, and dynamic world in which devices capable of two-way communication are connected to the internet, offering convenience, comfort, and a way to reduce costs and integrate greater amounts of distributed energy resources);
  • Behavioral responses (where customers change their electricity use in response to feedback they receive through smart technologies);
  • Electric vehicles (that can charge or discharge energy stored in their batteries at appropriate times to enhance grid flexibility); and
  • Other load shifting (where users move their load from on-peak to lower-use periods in order to improve the use of transmission and distribution system capacity, and avoid having to secure high-cost—and often dirty—resources to meet demand).

AER could also apply to many other promising beneficial electrification applications, such as air-source heat-pump water heating and space conditioning. Such applications would help ensure that these technologies use electricity more efficiently and with lower emissions, enabling grid operators more flexibility to accommodate greater amounts of intermittent renewable resources.

This is welcome news for state regulators who understand the environmental and grid management benefits of clean distributed resources. As demonstrated by National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) President Robert F. Powelson of Pennsylvania, who recently established the NARUC Task Force on Innovation, utility regulators can lead. This is important, because as the Menu suggests, distributed resources and other technologies deliver value and produce opportunities for innovation.