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Annual Public Lectures Series > Jennifer Weeks

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 8-11, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 3:30 p.m.
Powering the Future: How Renewables and Efficiency Can Remake the Grid
Jennifer Weeks, Freelance Journalist, moderator; Timothy Roughan, National Grid; Riley Allen, Regulatory Assistance Project; Seth Kaplan, Conservation Law Foundation
Lecture Summary Prepared by Eleni Gesch-Karamanlidis

Also see: Video


This panel began with an introduction by moderator Jennifer Weeks, a freelance writer who covers many aspects of energy. Weeks began by explaining why the power sector is a major focus of the renewable energy movement. First, this sector generates more than 33% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human activity. Second, all major fuels used to generate power have environmental impacts–radioactive waste, habitat loss and greenhouse gas pollution, for example. Finally, the electricity sector could potentially help the United States move away from oil dependency by providing the transportation industry with alternative sources of fuel. In order to understand the renewable energy movement in the U.S., said Weeks, we need to look at how to improve the national electric grid.

The three main parts of the electric sector are generation, transmission and distribution. Historically, most attention has been given to the generation aspect of electrical power. However, there has been a recent increase in the attention paid to transmission and distribution. This is due to several factors. The first is that the national grid is old and lacking in long distance transmission lines, which allows consumers to connect to far away grid areas with good renewable energy sources. Second, the grid is so interconnected that issues in one area can trigger outages in another. Third, the way electricity is currently distributed to consumers does not give them an indication of how much they are using throughout the day nor does it denote fluctuations in the cost of production of electricity. This prevents consumers from effectively tailoring their electricity usage.

The first panelist, Tim Roughan of National Grid, explained that National Grid is only a delivery service of electricity; the company is not involved in production. This means it is National Grid's responsibility to manage transmission lines and consumer use. Rhode Island participates in a net metering program that gives electricity credits to private consumer who generate their own electricity with wind or solar power and connect this electricity to the main grid.

Roughan noted that there has been a tremendous increase in proposals for distributed generation projects in the past 25 years, partly as a result of a decrease in the cost of solar technology. In 2009 alone, 90% of a total 90,000 kWh requested for connection to the Northeast grid were distributed generation projects.

National Grid sees several areas in need of more attention to handle renewable energy projects in the future. At a basic level, National Grid needs to maintain all distributed generation (solar or wind) systems that come on line to the grid. Once these independent projects are online, National Grid is responsible for any problems. This means the utility company needs to understand how these distributed generation projects affect each other and are affected by other factors (car accidents, inclement weather, wildlife). In the event of these types of events, National Grid needs to be able to de-energize the system to prevent outages or other consequences affecting other customers, bearing in mind that the further away an outage is to a substation, the more repair time is needed. Finally, Roughan observed, there is a need for a better understanding of how weather affects the energy source, such as sun or wind. A passing cloud can cause a significant voltage swing within a solar energy system.

Riley Allen of the Vermont-based Regulatory Assistance Project went on to describe several key challenges to integrating renewable energy into the national grid. First, current regional planning models often leave gaps in their plan for dealing with the intricate interconnection found in the grid. Second, a lot of financial investment is needed to update transmission lines within the grid. Energy sources are widespread throughout the country. Transmission lines bring electricity far from its source, whether from Canada to the Northeast or from the Midwest to around the U.S. A lot of terrestrial wind energy opportunities exist in the middle of the U.S while there is potential for photovoltaic technology in the Southwest and offshore wind technology in the Northeast. The third key challenge to integrating renewable energy into the grid is that transmission lines need to be built that aggregate the daily fluctuating energy loads to smooth out the current volatility of renewable energy. A study conducted in Europe called the Roadmap 2050 found that a combination of solar and wind technologies on a grid was more stable than wind alone.

Panelist Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England-wide environmental advocacy organization, noted that it is important to view the issue of renewable energy as a big picture instead of focusing only the energy aspect. This big picture includes any economical considerations. He described the results of the Roadmap 2050 study, which indicated the reductions needed in each major sector to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets. Among all of these sectors, the power sector could most easily reduce emissions.

Kaplan also showed the Mckinsey Greenhouse Gas Cost Abatement Curve, which describes the costs associated with reducing carbon dioxide emissions. On one extreme of the Curve are activities that consumers can get paid to do, such as installing energy efficient lighting. Energy measures that cost nothing include installing small hydro electric projects. Energy saving measures that are very costly include carbon capture and sequestration from power plants. Overall within the renewable energy sector, he concluded, there is great demand for new technology and new applications of old technology.


Jennifer Weeks is an independent writer specializing in nature, energy and environmental issues. She has written for more than 40 newspapers, magazines, and web sites, including the Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Audubon, National Wildlife, Grist, Daily Climate, National Geographic Kids, Plenty, Backpacker, Environment, High Country News, Preservation, New Scientist, Columbia Journalism Review, and Newsweek. She also has fifteen years of experience as a Congressional aide, lobbyist, and public policy analyst. Weeks graduated from Williams College and holds masters degrees from the University of North Carolina in political science and from Harvard University in environmental policy. (June 9 public lecture and evening discussion) E-mail:

Timothy Roughan is the director of product management for National Grid's distribution companies that serve 3.3 million customers in New England and New York. The product management group works on developing new products to provide bundled customer solutions including energy efficiency, power quality services, smart grid technologies, and distributed generation. In addition, the department identifies ways to use these customer-side distributed resources to actively manage the loads on the local electric distribution system in targeted locations. Roughan has been with the company or its predecessors for 28 years and his prior positions include director of distributed resources, business services vice president, and the manager of power quality services. (June 9 public lecture)

J. Riley Allen is the research manager at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP). Prior to his work at RAP, he was the senior policy advisor to the Vermont Public Service Board and served as the director of utility planning at the Department of Public Service. For almost 20 years, he served as an economist, expert witness, and hearing examiner on a variety of major state-level policy investigations, including matters related to electric utility integrated resource planning, forecasting, electric utility industry restructuring, alternative regulation, transmission planning, and smart grid improvements. In 2006 and 2007, Riley led an effort to create a unique statewide transmission planning process that put energy efficiency and distributed generation on par with transmission for meeting reliability standards. He participated in New England regional transmission planning efforts to promote renewable energy on behalf of Vermont from 2008 to 2009. From 2001 to 2004, he assisted governments and communications regulators and in Southern Africa. Riley received an MA in economics from the University of Virginia and a BA in economics from the University of Florida.

Seth Kaplan is a senior attorney at Conservation Law Foundation and director of the Clean Energy and Climate Change Program. In this role, he focuses on fostering renewable energy, working for climate protection, and reducing the environmental impact of fossil fuel power plants. A native of Rhode Island, Kaplan worked as a real estate and environmental attorney in New York before his return to CLF, where he had previously worked as a law student. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Northeastern University School of Law. (June 9 public lecture)

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June 24, 2010