What Is Power System Flexibility?

This video was originally posted by the Northwest Power & Conservation Council.

It’s a three minute video featuring Bob Jenks, executive director of the CUB Policy Center, talking about the growing need for flexibility in the region’s power system. A transcript of the video is below.

Can you explain what power system flexibility is?

System flexibility is really a way to use your existing resources both from the supply side and then on the demand side in customer homes and businesses in a manner that’s more efficient.  By doing so we can avoid building large new power plants or other big investments. The more we can be efficient with it—flexibility is a key part of that—it’s really a way to reduce cost in the system.

How does flexibility benefit consumers?

Flexibility benefits consumers first of all by reducing cost on the system. If you can avoid making a big power plant or purchasing a big power plant then you avoid the cost of that. A good example would be ultimately if you could harness the power in people’s homes from a water heater to store energy as an alternative to building one more giant power plant the customer is helping to participate in reducing their own cost. And that’s helpful. It’s empowering. It’s also a way to reduce emissions, carbon emissions, and other pollution going into the atmosphere.  In the end, if we can build a more flexible and more decentralized utility system we save money and reduce pollution.

What will the power system of the future look like?

The power system of the future will be different. It will have tens or hundreds of thousands of solar PV units on rooftops. It will have lots of wind generation coming from not just the Columbia Gorge but from other parts of the region and even parts of the West feeding into a system. And then in order to deal with that, there’s times when the wind isn’t blowing.  For instance I can drive my electric car home and when I plug in my electric car in, rather than saying start charging at 10 PM, I can give over control to the utility so as the wind goes up and down over the course of the night the utility can be using my electric car as a place to help absorb that wind. Therefore I’m helping to integrate that wind at a relatively low cost.

There are lots of other examples. A commercial freezer for example, is a wonderful tool to store energy. You can reduce a commercial freezer down to its coldest point—pre-chill it—at night with that excess wind and then you don’t need to turn it on over the course of the morning rush hour when everyone is getting up and taking showers and making toast. And then in the afternoon or around noon when the sun is really shining, there’s lots of power being produced by the PVs you can again pre-chill that freezer so when the evening rush hour comes and everyone comes home and turns on their appliances and we have that peak load at five or six o’clock when the sun’s not generating as much power you can take those freezers offline and their not absorbing electricity.

So you’re really balancing the system both with generation and with customers making adjustments on the load. There’s really hundreds and hundreds of thousands of points of generation or demand response that utility is combining.