On April 30, Tesla’s Elon Musk took the stage in California to introduce the company’s Powerwall battery energy storage system, which he hopes will revolutionize the dormant market for household and utility-scale batteries.
A few days later, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case during its fall term that could very well determine whether Tesla’s technology gamble succeeds or fails. Justices will hear arguments on October 14 to address questions having to do with federal jurisdiction over the fast-changing electricity business.
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At issue is an obscure federal policy known in the dry language of the electricity business as “Order 745,” which a lower court vacated last year.
Order 745 allowed electricity customers to be paid for reducing electricity usage from the grid – a practice known as “demand response.” It also stipulated that demand response customers would be paid the market price for not using the grid – like the power industry’s version of paying farmers not to grow corn.
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But research, including some of my own, has shown that demand response can make markets operate more efficiently, temper the market power held by power generating companies and reduce the risk of blackouts.
In other words, as long as the prices and rules are right, paying people to use less electricity isn’t such a crazy idea. Indeed, it’s just one way that new technologies, including rooftop solar and batteries, could make the grid cleaner and lower prices.
Smart grid on trial
The Order 745 case has already proven to be a major disruption in the US electricity market. It has thrown uncertainty into business models, market prices, and in some cases even the planning of the power grid to ensure reliability in the coming years.
The case, however, ultimately goes far beyond demand response.
The issue at hand is all about the ability of the federal government to set market rules for local power systems – that is, the portion of the grid that reaches individual homes and businesses – versus the regional grid that transports power over long distances across the US. It therefore has implications for the value of rooftop solar systems, backup generators, and even Tesla’s Powerwall battery – basically anything that would allow individual customers to supply energy to the power grid or reduce demands on an already strained infrastructure.
In fact, Order 745 could very well be the biggest energy-related Supreme Court case in decades.
The significance of this particular case is rooted in the two different and opposing directions in which technology, policy and good old consumer behavior are pushing and pulling the business of electricity.
A regional grid operator’s primary function is to ensure the lights stay on by having enough power to match the demand. But there is no technological reason that demand response, backup generators or energy storage banks, electric vehicles, and other emerging technologies that are all part of the “smart grid” could not serve the same function for regional power grids that large power plants do today.
And there are good reasons to believe that harnessing loca-volt energy and energy efficiency will actually be cheaper than building new power plants for times when large-scale wind and solar plants aren’t available (France and some places in the US already do this, through controllable hot water heaters).
Before launching Tesla’s wall-mounted batteries, perhaps Mr Musk should have sat on his hands for a bit longer.
This article has been updated with more detail on the author’s involvement in microgrid projects.
Seth Blumsack is an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University. This article originally appeared in The Conversation.