Breaking the Logjam – How Can Congress Move Forward on Vital Grid Modernization Policy?

Bryce Yonker, Executive Director Smart Grid NW


Unless you were entirely unplugged or on vacation last week there is no way you could have missed the news on the EPA moving forward with its Clean Power Plan. Many in the environmental community are calling it the biggest development for addressing climate change that the U.S. government has made to date. When you look at the Pacific NW however, it doesn’t appear that it will have a dramatic impact. The renewable portfolio standards, early coal facility retirement, and efficiency programs already underway in the Pacific NW (largely OR and WA) have us on a path of early compliance with the program.

The most recent released version of the Clean Power Plan does, however, call out energy storage and demand side solutions as tools for integrating variable resources. It also acknowledges that optimizing transmission and distribution systems can fit into state plans trough solutions that reduce line losses (like volt/VAR optimization) and that reduce end-use demand (conservation voltage reduction). And finally, while it may not make demand response explicitly a compliance resource, it does bring demand-side management assets more fully into the discussion as assets that can help system operators meet reliability and load requirements. These opportunities and others are a big step forward for the smart grid market across the country.

A less raucous development was taking place in D.C. via the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee over the last few weeks. On July 30th, the Committee, chaired by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined with Ranking Member Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) to approve the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 with a strong bipartisan 18-4 vote.

Smart Grid NW was very pleased to see both parties working together to start the process for the first major congressional energy initiative in many years. Since 2007 Congress has largely been locked in a stalemate on key energy policies that support grid modernization, energy innovation and research, workforce development, and much more. This bill offers a chance to break the logjam in Congress for vital grid modernization actions.

Key grid modernization components in this bill include:

  • A variety of grid modernization and smart grid demonstrations and market planning
  • Various grid security efforts
  • Grid storage projects
  • 21st century workforce development efforts
  • Numerous efficiency and smart building projects
  • Funding for basic and applied energy research
  • And much more…

There is no doubt that one side of the aisle cares more about different parts in this bill more than the other, but isn’t that always the nature of bipartisan collaboration? It has become obvious to anyone paying attention that this country needs to more effectively invest in its energy infrastructure, and this bill offers a number of key paths in the right direction. The following is an incomplete list of the reasons why we need these investments:

  • Distributed energy resources, from solar PV and battery storage to electric vehicles and smart connected buildings/appliances, are coming online rapidly and taxing not only the energy infrastructure but also the business models that energy providers established more than a century ago.
  • Security threats are increasing, from cyber attacks culling sensitive personal data, to domestic and international threats, to physical infrastructure.
  • Variable clean energy resources are becoming a much more significant part of the energy system and we need to accommodate them more effectively.
  • Markets around the world are investing in first generation or updated systems and are bypassing the limited capabilities of our systems.
  • There are thousands of quality, local jobs associated with the necessary work to modernize or energy infrastructure with innovative new companies, established large corporations, and utilities across the country
  • Extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm – here in the Northwest, for example, we are having one of the driest and hottest summers on record. Are we now joining most of the U.S. and becoming a summer peaking market? We need our energy systems to be more flexible and resilient.

For our region and the nation to meet the needs of the 21st Century digital economy, the grid requires significant modernization and a number of important technologies and models need to be examined to determine their role in our evolving system. This increasingly complex architecture also requires the appropriate security solutions and protocols to be in place to ensure that the reliable, safe, affordable energy, so critical to our livelihoods, can continue to be relied upon. This comprehensive, bipartisan bill sets forth a strong path to support these topics and a diversity of critical needs for our energy system.

It is vitally important that local, state, regional, and federal governments and other various stakeholders see the importance of investing in our energy infrastructure now and take the measures that are within their power to do just that. By continuing to educate ourselves and others in the industry, we can keep the dialogue moving forward and keep our critical energy infrastructures evolving.

I hope that the hard work put in by Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, and many others, can be followed by the entire Senate and House of Representatives. We hope the Senate and Congress at large can work together on a bipartisan basis to move this bill forward and that their action will break up the stalemate in Congress to move on vital grid modernization policies. This country needs to clearly prioritize energy infrastructure and take firm action. We can’t afford to wait another eight years for the logjam in Congress to break free.


Bryce Yonker is the first Executive Director for Smart Grid Northwest, a trade organization working to promote smart grid industry and the development of smart grid solutions in the Pacific NW.