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Key to Optimized Energy Management is Flexibility, How Are Utilities Working on That?

Energy Technologies Institute

When utilities look to manage their energy generating fleets in an optimal way for cost, emissions, and more, one of the key aspects of that process is flexibility. 

Renewable sources like solar and wind are great at reducing emissions, but their intermittent nature makes them non-dispatchable without energy storage that is still working to become largely cost-competitive. 

Coal fuel is largely economical but is obviously not the best for the environment and is also costly and takes a lot of time to start and stop, so there's very little flexibility. 

Nuclear is another baseload source like coal, and luckily the nuclear process is essentially carbon neutral, but like coal they take much time and costs to start up and close down to provide power so flexibility isn't an option.

Natural gas is typically the most flexible fuel source, being able to ramp up and down quickly in response to demand events, but the downside is that gas is still a fossil fuel. So while it's much cleaner burning than coal, as gas takes over a larger portion of the utility sector it's emitting more and more greenhouse gases.


Ideally, then, as utilities look to increase their flexibility they look to innovative programs and solutions beyond building out more gas-- the least climate-friendly of the flexibility options. TVA, for example, has begun adding a combination of gas, storage, and demand response programs in their efforts to increase flexibility. Some other options to creatively address flexibility that I've written about across Energy Central include:

  • Investing in renewable technologies that look to better predict renewable output in the day-ahead market so they can accurately be deployed. This can be done through accurate weather-predicting algorithms, for example. 

  • Utilize electric vehicles as an elegant energy storage and/or distributed energy resource-- similar to demand response but going hand-in-hand with another sector primed to get huge imminently. 

  • Another model that's getting a lot of attention recently is the virtual power plant, which takes DERs (both large and small) and uses central algorithms to deploy them for as-needed grid flexibility. 

  • The other end of the flexibility equation is finding non-wasteful and innovative uses when generation exceeds demand, which gives utilities incentive to overbuild typically intermittent resources like solar and wind for overall added flexibility. 

What are some additional ways in which utilities can look to address the need for added energy generation flexibility?

Matt Chester's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on March 23, 2019

Another insightful piece. Well done. This list shows the dynamic changes that are making todays Forward Capacity Markets, with their 3 year time horizons, obsolete. We need a new approach to secure capacity using a "Just in Time" approach, which recognizes that today's challenge is in managing the existing capacity that is already sufficient to meet peak demand and new capacity that is coming online daily.

Well done, Matt.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on March 25, 2019

Well-put-- the goal is to address the minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour power needs in the most efficient and affordable way possible. Fortunately that does seem to be a top priority of focus and research in most utilities. It's great to see such an entrenched and institutionalized industry recognize the changes coming and adapting to them

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