Grid Modernization at the Rhode Island Offshore Wind Summit

Marissa Hummon Grid Mod Panel

Just over a week ago, the Utilidata team traveled South to Newport to attend the first Rhode Island Offshore Wind Summit, which was hosted by the Northeast Clean Energy Council (NECEC). About 200 people from all over the world – some traveling from as far as Norway! – gathered in the beautiful, renovated Innovate Newport space to discuss the state of the offshore wind market, pace of adoption, challenges facing its growth, and to share ideas, best practices, and solutions amongst all kinds of stakeholders: utilities, manufacturers, regulators, marine consultants and engineers, and, of course, tech companies!

As part of the effort to convene multiple viewpoints in order to tackle roadblocks, the conference hosted a panel on grid modernization, intended to address the prevailing challenge of bringing offshore wind energy onto the distribution grid. Utilidata’s CTO Marissa Hummon was a panelist for the discussion, joined by Carols Nouel, Vice President of Innovation and Development at National Grid; Jonathan Schrag, Department Administrator at the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission; Steve Conant, Partner at Anbaric; and Sarah Bresolni, Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs for ENGIE North America. The panel was moderated by the Commissioner for Rhode Island’s Office of Energy Resources, Carol Grant. 

It was a completely packed room, and questions came from the audience for the entire hour. In general, the conversation focused on three key issues facing the effective integration of offshore wind: 

1. How do we get energy to the consumers?

Here, the panelists debated several different approaches to bridging the gap between energy generation and distribution. On the one hand, better integration of transmission stakeholders during the development process can ensure more seamless delivery to the eventual end-user – a lesson learned from the early mistakes of early adopters of offshore wind, like Germany. On the other hand, there are ways to operate the distribution system that helps minimize the integration cost and maximize the utility of large-scale renewable generation. The most obvious are adding storage and managing demand, however, all distributed energy resources connected to the distribution system must be properly coordinated in order to maintain and optimize local voltage and capacity conditions.

2. What is the business model for offshore wind?

Many questions from the audience revolved around the myriad of development options that would support the development of offshore wind – market rules, transmission infrastructure, short- and long-term storage. The existence of these supporting technologies could reduce the investment risk for an offshore wind resource developer and therefore reduce the cost of the technology. The panelists reiterated a common concern: it is unclear who will pay for these projects. Given that every state has jurisdiction over the regulation of electricity generated and transmitted, there are potential complications for projects like offshore wind, which may ultimately serve the demand in one state, but would be most cost-effectively transmitted through a nearby coastal state. This is a question that’s being addressed in real-time by both policy-makers and companies that are eager to see these projects succeed.

3. Why are we so behind?

There was a collective frustration with the rate of change in the energy industry, and offshore wind shines a light on this particular issue. Worldwide offshore capacity exceeded 23 GW at the end of 2018 and has been on a 20 to 30% growth trajectory for the last 10 years. Rhode Island and New England overall have procured 800 MW and 1.5 Gw, respectively, due for operation in 202x. So, while consumers clamor for cleaner energy and legislators announce ever more aggressive emissions reduction goals, we still aren’t moving fast enough. But why? As Marissa emphasized on the panel, the technologies to meaningfully and effectively bring renewables and DERs onto the grid already exist. We just need to deploy them faster, which means making them a higher priority and accelerating very slow vetting processes. She said, “We will not meet our sustainability goals if we do not begin to take a few risks.” 

The conference ignited a very meaningful conversation about grid modernization and its role in the adoption and accommodation of offshore wind. We were honored to be included, and are already looking forward to next year’s event!