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Oklahoma's electric utilities prepare for emerging technology

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Oklahoma's electric utilities must be flexible as they work with changing consumer and industry behaviors, industry leaders said this week at the 2018 Emerging Technology Conference.

Led by Western Farmers Electric Cooperative and its 21 member cooperatives, the conference focused on how changing consumer and industry trends are leading to a more flexible electric grid.

The growth of renewable energy over the past decade has both lowered overall electrical costs and altered how utilities deliver that power to consumers, Western Farmers CEO Gary Roulet said.

"If the world changes as much as it has in the past five years, we won't recognize it five years from now," Roulet said.

Wind and solar generation have surged throughout the Oklahoma region, and renewables are expected to grow to about 40 percent of the region's generated power over the next few years, he said.

"The next step is battery technology," he said. "My guess is we'll look at a battery project soon. When you match a battery project with a solar project and solar tax credits, I think you're going to see those projects pop up quickly. None of this is going to go away."

While electricity generation has changed, demand also has evolved rapidly. Many more homes and businesses have been added to the grid, but consumers are using less electricity per capita, Roulet said.

"New homes today will use half the electricity new homes used 30 years ago," he said. "Nothing built today uses as much as what it is replacing."

A perfect fit

One potential emerging technology could have significant effects on both the amount of power utilities must provide and when that power is needed.

"The way electric vehicles fit in the electricity market is very positive," Roulet said. "There's a huge amount of energy at night that's unused. If you charge an electric vehicle in your home and your electric cooperative gave you an incentive to charge at night, you could make the cost of an electric vehicle incredibly low to operate."

Electric vehicles today make up on a tiny fraction of the cars in both Oklahoma and nationwide. But nearly all major vehicle manufacturers have announced plans to introduce new electric vehicles over the next few years. Manufacturers collectively have said they will invest at least $40 billion into electric vehicles over the next few years.

"Electric vehicles are coming in a very big way," said David Jankowsky, president of Tulsa-based Francis Solar. "We need the infrastructure to support that."

Electric demand generally surges in the afternoon and early evening, falling significantly overnight. Because most plug-in electric vehicles are charged for several hours overnight, they could provide a boost for utilities, creating demand at a time when it generally is at its lowest.

But it would be much less beneficial to the utilities if consumers collectively charged their electric vehicles in the afternoon or early evening, said Mike Faulkenberry, Western Farmers' vice president of marketing and member relations.

"The challenge we have is making sure we have the right rate signal and control mechanism," he said. "If everybody came home to plug in and charge at the same time, that would be hard on the system. It would double demand."

Cooperatives are looking at encouraging overnight charging with lower rates at off-peak demand times, an extension of a program already used by many utilities to incentivize customers to use electricity when demand is low and to minimize power usage when demand is higher.

Some utilities also are considering a stronger approach.

"Another option is a load management system where co-ops could remotely control and disable the outlet in the home," Faulkenberry said. "The consumer might be willing to give the utility that control if the cooperative helps provide for some of the cost of the electric vehicle charging station."

Staying ahead of trends and understanding their potential consequences is important for utilities and their customers, Faulkenberry said.

"A lot of this is more about education than marketing," he said. "We have a very diverse customer base with member owners. It's important for them to understand the industry and environment."

Adam Wilmoth

Adam Wilmoth returned to The Oklahoman as energy editor in 2012 after working for four years in public relations. He previously spent seven years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman, including... Read more ›

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