PodcastAs part of the upcoming Sim4Blocks podcast series, Malcolm Yadack has been speaking to various people involved with the project about the challenges and opportunities that face the project in the coming years. The following is an excerpt of his conversation with Michael Bobker, director of the Building Performance Lab at City University of New York and advisory board member for Sim4Blocks.

Malcolm Yadack: Tell us a little bit about yourself…

Michael Bobker: I direct the Building Performance Laboratory at the City College of New York, where we do applied research and training on the topic of energy efficiency in buildings. As part of that we address demand response and peak management. Prior to founding the lab I was involved in quite a few projects in the early days of demand response during the 1990s, leading up to deregulation in the New York City market when concerns started to arise about capacity conditions on the electricity grid.

MY: It’s a very different perspective from what we’re working with here in Europe. The US started much earlier with demand response programmes and had a different motivation to begin with to get involved with the topic. Do you see Europe as being too late? Can we learn from the experiences of the US?

MB: You’re absolutely right that the motivation is different. Sim4Blocks’ interest in demand response has come from the need to integrate large quantities of renewable energy electively into the grid. That’s not where demand response came from in the United States. It came much more from the need to control peak demands on an overloaded grid, and more recently on stressed distribution networks within cities. The issue of how to electively integrate large amounts of fluctuating power sources into the grid has been recognised by US utilities. With increasing goals for very aggressive energy targets, New York City wants an 80 per cent reduction of carbon by 2050. That of course is really heightening the demand for renewables, and so I expect that we will now be focusing on demand response much as Europe is doing as a part of integration of renewables into the grid. There’s a lot to be learnt in both directions.

MY: What does demand response in New York City look like? What does it mean for the user? Does it mean I can’t wash my clothes when I want to?

MB: There are a variety of forms. Most of them are incentivised programs driven by payments for shifting load. We do some loads at specified times, rolled out mostly on a call basis. The utility or independent system operator will identify peak load conditions, generally based on weather, and we’ll ask people for their capacity at those times. That can apply to voluntary programs or mandatory programs. Mandatory programmes of course are contractual; they have higher payments than voluntary programmes. They also have penalties for not meeting demands, so they are closely monitored. So there are a variety of mechanisms, which would include things like “hold off on washing your clothes until tonight”, but would also include things like turning o unnecessary lights and computers.

MY: A big part of demand response in Europe is a discussion of policy to a certain extent. In Germany and in most countries we have energy systems that are defined and designed for a different era, designed for big power and systems that didn’t have to react to gigawatts of flexible photovoltaic and wind generation coming into the grid unexpectedly. Europe is doing its best with what it has to create a “patchwork” solution to accommodate renewables. What is the situation in New York, especially in respect to demand response and policy?

MB: In the US, utility regulation is conducted at the state level. New York for the past several years has been going through a governor initiated public service commission and enacted a process called “Reforming the energy vision” or REV. This is a multi-stakeholder collaborative process aimed at restructuring the institutions that are responsible for providing power to the markets. One of the areas that have been deemed important in this process is demand response and how customers can participate more actively and more flexibly in the energy markets. The old model of the customer as a pure consumer is gone. It started to erode with early demand response when customer capacities were called on, such as turning on an emergency generator or turning off lights at specified times. But it’s now developed further into a deeper structural change to the market, including clearer roles for distributed resources (both fossil fuels and renewables) and how they are able to enter into the market more systematically.

MY: NP1030876ew York City is a special place, not only because it is a megacity, but also because of its ageing infrastructure, the fact that local networks are under stress, and the imminent shutting down of a large nuclear power plant, Indian Point. What does that mean for New York? Does it represent a chance for demand response to fill a gap?

MB: New York City is blessed with one of the most reliable local distribution companies for utilities in the world. Con Edison has an incredible record of maintaining reliability to a population of over eight million people. We’re lucky in that most of the city has underground distribution, which has some problems but overall ages better than overhead distribution, and is subject to much less interruption from natural causes. So this tremendous company, when they were deregulated in 1990, were forced to divest of all of their power plant resources, which includes Indian Point, a 3000 megawatt power plant about 30 miles up the Hudson in Westchester County. This is an ageing power plant, seen as a thorn in the side of the occupants of Westchester County, who felt that they did not have an adequate emergency exit route in case of problems at the plant. So one of the drivers of the REV process was: what would happen in the region, and in New York City in particular (which gets about 25 per cent of its electricity from Indian Point), if that plant was closed? Now, there are firm plans to begin closing the plant in the 2020s. So with renewables undoubtedly coming to the fore in the future, there will be a need for demand response for flexible loads, and distributed resources in general are slated to have a significant role in replacing the lost capacity from Indian Point. It’s a huge step.

Thanks very much for your time, Michael. We’re very glad you could join us for the workshop here in Sion.