With all the attention now focused on the Smart Grid, utility-grade photovoltaic installations, wind farms and the billions of federal dollars from the Obama stimulus package that may soon help fund the construction and expansion of the nation's electrical grid, it's a really interesting time to be a utility rep. The 200-plus attendees at the 2009 annual conference of the Electrical Equipment Representatives Association (EERA) held in Asheville, N.C., April 26-April 29, got a glimpse of their future from experts in renewable power, Smart Grid technology and utility M&As.

Bill Sim, now president of the consulting firm Midlothian Associates, Glenelg, Md., has seen the utility industry from several unique vantage points. He now consults with electric utilities on projects ranging from mergers and acquisitions to ocean-based Scottish tidal farms that use wave energy to generate electricity. Previously, he was senior vice president of Pepco Holdings, Inc. (PHI), a regional energy holding company that provides utility service to more than 1.8 million customers in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey through Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco), Delmarva Power and Atlantic City Electric.

During his presentation “Staying Relevant through 2020,” Sim said the federal stimulus bill would not have a major impact on Smart Grid construction, but it would pump big dollars into new federal facilities and the retrofit of existing federal buildings. However, he said the attention the stimulus package is now drawing to the need to rebuild the nation's power grid was a positive.

Sim said the two-way metering that the Smart Grid may one day bring to homes and businesses throughout the United States would allow utilities to analyze how and when their customers use electricity and to offer them opportunities to save money by shifting their electrical usage to non-peak hours (doing their laundry at night, perhaps) and pre-cooling or pre-heating their residences and businesses so they are not running their HVAC systems at full capacity when they are not home.

While Sim is a big believer in solar, wind and other renewables as future power sources, he said nuclear power is going to have to play a much bigger role in power generation, too. He said it's critical for the United States to develop a diverse range of power solutions and get away from to coal as such a dominant fuel source. Coal is currently the fuel of choice for 50 percent of all U.S. power generation, followed by natural gas (19 percent); nuclear (19 percent); oil (3 percent); hydroelectric (6.7 percent) and renewables such as solar, wind, biomass and geothermal (2.4 percent combined). “Whenever we rely on one fuel we get in trouble,” he said. “Renewables have a place. But until we resolve the bulk-storage problem, renewables in this country will remain small potatoes. We need bulk storage big-time in this country. It's the missing link.”

Several of the presenters on the “Utility of the Future” panel agreed about the need to find a method of storing power from utility-grade photovoltaic fields and wind farms. Noah Tai helped develop renewable energy sources for New York's Consolidated Edison for more than 30 years before retiring and moving to his present post as regional vice president/marketing for Mitsubishi Electric Power Products. Without storage, he said, utilities will need back-up power supply to avoid situations like what has happened in Texas several times in the past few years — when production from the state's many wind farms plummeted because of weather issues. When cold fronts move through the state the wind sometimes dies down. “If you don't have storage, you need back-up supply,” he said. “If you need back-up supply, you are back to base generation.”