Power after Carbon: Building a Clean, Resilient Grid

  • Published

Power after Carbon: Building a Clean, Resilient Grid by Peter Fox-Penner. Harvard University Press, 2020, 430 pp.

Ten years after his popular work Smart Power, Professor Peter Fox-Penner returns with an updated and companion piece, Power after Carbon: Building a Clean, Resilient Grid, on the country’s transition from fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation to carbon neutral sources. Substantial technological progress has been made in the areas of power generation and energy efficiency. Fox-Penner’s new research focuses on the challenges both to the electric grid to compensate for the inherent inconsistency in power output from renewable sources and to the electric utilities to make this transition while remaining profitable. Fox-Penner does a commendable job of providing insight into the inner workings of an industry most take for granted. He astutely avoids forecasting the precise details of the transition but thoroughly investigates and then recommends pathways to achieve zero carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2050.

While Power after Carbon tackles technical subject matter, it builds an understanding of the electric power industry from the bottom up. Fox-Penner’s finesse in enabling the reader to understand this specialized subject matter likely comes from years of experience educating students and industry professionals. He is a Professor of Practice at the Boston University Questrom School of Business and  the founder and director of the school’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. He is also a partner and the chief strategy officer of Energy Impact Partners and maintains ties with the Brattle Group, where he worked as principal and chairman for 20 years.

The first chapters of Power after Carbon focus on the existing and emerging technologies that will transform the production and consumption of electricity. As more vehicles and appliances run on electricity instead of fossil fuels, energy efficiency will need to increase to prevent ballooning electricity consumption. US electricity consumption peaked in 2007 and has since declined 8 percent. Fox-Penner notes that “this trend is even more remarkable because it has occurred during a time when real electricity prices have been going down, not up” (16), and he suggests that innovations such as net zero buildings are likely to continue this trend. California, for example, has required all new homes to be net zero as of 2020 and will widen this requirement to include commercial buildings in 2030. A decrease in the cost of photovoltaics and an increase in the efficiency of household appliances such as air conditioners and water heaters has made this mandate possible.

These developments, coupled with local battery storage, could lead to a “local power” trend, but Fox-Penner points out that the “Big Grid” will still benefit from economies of scale and will still be required to temper the swings in energy production from renewable sources. In fact, an investigation of how balancing authority areas (BAA) currently operate to satisfy supply and demand and what will imminently be expected of the BAAs reveals forces that favor a geographic expansion. Parts of the United States, for example, have much more potential for renewable energy production than others. Large-scale storage projects, such as pumped storage hydroelectricity or heat storage, will be far less expensive than multiple lithium-ion batteries for meeting peaking energy needs.

Given recent high-profile hacking events, Fox-Penner presciently considers the small versus large debate through a cybersecurity lens. He notes that essential users, including US military bases, have embraced a “cyber-secured microgrid” concept to external vulnerabilities. He warns, however, that “microgrids can function on their own only because they have extensive sensing control and communication networks that work without long latency or interruption” (87). These networks create vulnerability to all associated microgrids even though the grids are physically isolated. Moreover, the small governments or organizations that tend to run microgrids likely do not have the resources to invest sufficiently in security or to deal with the repercussions of a hack. Fox-Penner concludes that the United States will see a trend toward smaller grids over the long term, However, in the coming decades, the safe transition to carbon neutrality will largely depend on the preservation of the Big Grid.

Utility companies now find themselves in a challenging situation. Fox-Penner asks, “What do you do when the only way to earn the profits that are built into prices is selling a product whose sales are flat to down” (176)? Actually, utility companies have recently done quite well by investing in renewables and smart-grid technology, creating additional revenue streams. Fox-Penner revisits the concepts of Smart Integrator (SI) and Energy Service Utility (ESU) from Smart Power as emerging business models and expands them into a spectrum of customer engagement. He considers several examples of electric utilities along this spectrum and examines the unique regulatory challenges and the potential to facilitate a transition to clean energy. The SI model combined with separate energy service companies that interact directly with the consumer seems to show the most potential to leverage cutting-edge technology. This model would thrive in an environment where “prosumers” generate much of their own electricity and where artificially intelligent algorithms can provide individualized services.

Fox-Penner concludes Power after Carbon with an appendix of policy recommendations, all focused on a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Many of the recommendations are not clear-cut mandates. On the topic of utility business and regulatory models, he states that nations, states, and utility companies must consciously choose a model but does not prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. The transition to a clean power grid will not be simple, but Power after Carbon will help consumers, regulators, and business professionals alike to make educated decisions.

Lt Frederick Metzger, USAF



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."