An old-school power company adapts to new energy

An old-school power company adapts to new energy

The result has been more electric vehicles in California.

Electric cars being charged in a parking garage.
Electric cars being charged in a parking garage.

Welcome to the utility industry’s future — or at least that’s what Southern California Edison is hoping. Here in a non-descript, 53,500-square-foot building, the $12 billion utility’s research team is testing everything from charging electronic vehicles via cell phone to devices that smooth out the power created by solar panels.

Those are some of the roughly 60 projects in the works at Edison’s Advanced Technology division. It has a small $19 million annual budget, but its influence far exceeds that. The engineers from California’s largest utility are hatching plans to insure its survival — and maybe even the survival of the nation’s other big utilities, which are watching the project closely.

The lab was formed by Southern California Edison, the primary electricity supply company for much of southern California, in 2009 after California passed a landmark law to lower its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels and source one third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

The result has been more electric vehicles in California. And more solar and wind power, which has got the state’s utilities, and those nationwide, scrambling to adapt. Unlike traditional electricity, power from solar and wind sources fluctuates depending on the weather, making it tricky to manage on the grid. Also, the cost of solar power has come down so much that more homeowners are producing their own power and paying less to their utility. Simply put: long term, utilities will need new sources of revenue.


In 2013, California’s three largest utilities sourced nearly 23 per cent of their power from renewable sources, and Governor Jerry Brown has called for a target of 50 per cent by 2030. Twenty nine states have laws requiring more renewables, according to North Carolina State University’s Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

With so much “distributed” energy on the grid, mainly from solar panels, says Accenture, the utility industry could see revenues fall by between $18 billion and $48 billion a year by 2025. That’s why some call it the utility “death spiral.”

There’s a reason why the lab’s work is getting a lot of attention. Edison’s work designing cyber security systems and developing uses for advanced energy metres have received high marks from other utilities, said Mark McGranaghan, a vice president at the Electric Power Research Institute.

Edison’s lab has emerged as a model for others, too. In 2013, The National Renewable Energy Laboratory opened its $135 million Energy Systems Integration Facility, which complements Edison’s research. The New York Power Authority is also working to establish a similar lab.

Edison is focused on energy storage, automation and digital communications that will improve the efficiency and reliability of the grid. That, the utility hopes, will result in new revenue as power demand flattens and rooftop solar ramps up. Many of those technologies have yet to be commercialised, but the market is booming. That’s why Edison built nine labs here.

In one room, Edison researchers replicate a complete power grid. That was used to troubleshoot when Edison was working on a new transmission line to connect its grid with California’s other behemoth utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. In another lab, ‘smart’ inverters are being tested that are capable of smoothing out the voltage sent to the grid by solar panels. These devices are common in Europe, but have yet to be rolled out widely in the US.

Every year, the utility’s Advanced Technology group solicits project proposals from the rest of the utility. Among them: a project that studied how large amounts of wind and solar power affect power restoration during blackouts.
Many of the new technologies are taken for a test drive at the University of California, Irvine, faculty housing. ‘The Irvine Smart Grid Demonstration’, a $79 million project launched in 2010 and funded in part by the US Department of Energy, will wrap up later this year.

“We threw everything in there that we could think of, thinking that someday it was going to be real,” said Doug Kim, director of Advanced Technology Group. “Sure enough, just about everything we are testing is now real.”
Crista Lopes, a computer science professor, said the project cut her electric bill to zero in the summer. The utility outfitted her house with solar panels, about 50 LED light bulbs and new appliances like a “smart” refrigerator whose power usage she can track.


The stakes for the Irvine project are high. At the conclusion, Edison will make recommendations on smart grid technologies. The utility will then take the testing to a larger area —  perhaps thousands of homes.