By Ed Smith
Renewable energy is sweeping across the U.S. – and the world—because of the relentless march of market forces.
That was the perspective from Chandu Visweswariah, president and CEO of Utopus Insights, during a discussion of the electric grid of the future at a session Sunday at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in Boston.
Visweswariah, who holds a Ph.D. in computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, described a combination of forces that make the growth of renewables an unstoppable force.
“Tipping points are caused by economics,” he said. “This is not about blue states and red states. This is not about tree huggers and non-tree huggers. … Tipping points are inexorable. Tipping points are followed by massive adoption.”
And, he added, “We’re on the threshold of multiple of those tipping points” in the energy sector.
Those tipping points are made up of several factors. One is the “tsunami of data” now available in the energy industry from smart meters, satellites, hyperlocal weather forecasting. Another is the pace at which wind and solar are being adopted. Visweswariah noted that energy from wind has doubled in a decade and the cost has dropped by a third.
Added to that are new technology, such as highly efficient heat pumps, and the rise of battery storage and electric vehicles.
He also told the audience to follow the money. In 2015, $234 billion was invested in new capacity for conventional energy projects worldwide and $268 billion on renewables. In 2016, three-fourths of new investment in energy capacity in the U.S. was spent on renewables.
“These are the forces that are causing the industry to get disrupted,” he said.
Climate change or other environmental concerns aside, he said, renewables are simply far more efficient that traditional fossil fuels. Electric vehicles for example, are three times more efficient than traditional vehicles and heat pumps are “vastly more efficient” at heating and cooling buildings.
“Energy is a $6 trillion worldwide industry and if you can make it far more productive with far less waste there’s an enormous savings,” he said. “You can largely eliminate the waste from buildings and much of it from transportation.”
The great challenge, Visweswariah said, is to design a system that can manage renewables. He pointed to Vermont as a state that is combining a highly accurate local weather forecasting, the ability to predict demand and load needs and understanding that today’s energy consumers will be “prosumers” who both consume energy from and provide energy to the grid.
“The correct combination of prediction and optimization will be what’s needed to orchestrate this into the future.”
Ed Smith is the director of digital communications for NCSL.