There are 3,200 utilities that make up the U.S. electrical grid, the largest machine in the world. These power companies sell $400 billion worth of electricity a year, mostly derived from burning fossil fuels in centralized stations and distributed over 2.7 million miles of power lines. Regulators set rates; utilities get guaranteed returns; investors get sure-thing dividends. It’s a model that hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. And it’s doomed to obsolescence.
That’s the opinion of David Crane, chief executive officer of NRG Energy, a wholesale power company based in Princeton, N.J. What’s afoot is a confluence of green energy and computer technology, deregulation, cheap natural gas, and political pressure that, as Crane starkly frames it, poses “a mortal threat to the existing utility system.” He says that in about the time it has taken cell phones to supplant land lines in most U.S. homes, the grid will become increasingly irrelevant as customers move toward decentralized homegrown green energy. Rooftop solar, in particular, is turning tens of thousands of businesses and households into power producers. Such distributed generation, to use the industry’s term for power produced outside the grid, is certain to grow.
The solar and distributed generation push is being speeded up by a parallel revolution in microgrids. Those are computer-controlled systems that let consumers and corporate customers do on a small scale what only a Consolidated Edison or Pacific Gas & Electric could do before: seamlessly manage disparate power sources without interruption. The microgrid’s ultimate potential, however, is in turning every person, company, or institution with a renewable energy power system into a self-sustaining utility. Imagine your house switching from power it generates itself to power from the grid the way a Toyota (TM) Prius switches from battery power to gasoline.