Power Sector Transformation

Favorable economics and technological innovations are accelerating America’s transition to a clean, affordable, and reliable electricity grid. In many parts of the country, renewable energy technologies like wind and solar are cost-competitive or even cheaper than fossil fuels. Extensive modeling by government agencies and national labs shows a low-carbon electricity future can be just as reliable and affordable as our current system.

Falling costs coupled with falling emissions is the new normal. Major utilities are announcing ambitious clean energy goals with customer affordability in mind as economics and policy help wind and solar become the grid’s new backbone. States, cities, and Fortune 50 companies across the country are committing to 100% clean electricity.

The variability and low- or zero-marginal cost associated with wind and solar means the institutions governing and managing the grid must evolve as renewables make up a greater share of our power. Organized wholesale markets and utility regulation must evolve to support a rapid transition away from uneconomic fossil resources, and new investment in a mix of clean energy, storage, efficiency, and behind-the-meter resources. New models for operating an increasingly distributed and weather-dependent system must be developed.

Changes in the way customers generate and consume electricity are also transforming how utilities provide power and make money. Efficiency and demand response continue to flatten utility demand growth, but could do so much more. Customers providing their own power through customer-side solar and storage exacerbates efficiency-driven flat demand for electricity. Electrification of vehicles and buildings, married with automation technology, make it possible for customers to respond in real time to the availability of clean cheap power, potentially saving billions and obviating the need for hundreds of fossil power plants that currently provide these services.

Utilities and electricity markets are increasingly adapting to these new realities. Awareness about the need to rapidly expand and site a robust, modern transmission grid is growing. Wholesale markets are exploring ways to operate with more grid flexibility. A growing number of states are shifting toward performance-based regulation to evolve their utility business models and align utility finances with the outcomes that customers want from the grid. And several states are exploring innovative models to finance the transition from coal to clean.

Our Work

ERCOT control room, image via Wikimedia Commons

Energy Innovation works to accelerate these transitions and maximize power sector decarbonization benefits. We provide responsive research to policymakers, conduct analysis to support advocacy efforts, and synthesize technical research to inform the national conversation around electricity decarbonization. Our work originated from the America’s Power Plan (APP) project, which started with an overview paper and seven whitepapers on the power sector transformation, and grew into a network of more than 200 electricity expert partners. APP’s work now continues through Energy Innovation. Explore our foundational APP work and our current initiatives:

Power Sector Transformation Topics

Financial Transition

The rapid cost decline of renewable energy means running existing coal generation now exceeds the all-in cost of replacing it with wind and solar in most of the United States. This “coal cost crossover” begs regulators and utilities to reconsider the prudency of continuing to operate existing coal plants.

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Power Market Design

Competitive wholesale electricity markets are at a turning point. Current market rules and practices were established to manage a system built around large central plant stations generating electricity to meet inflexible demand. Prices and market revenues are tied to generators’ production costs, which have historically been largely dependent on the prices of fuels burned in those plants.

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Ratemaking and Utility Business Models

The United States’ electric power industry is changing fast. For a century, vertically integrated monopoly utilities built power plants, strung transmission and distribution lines, billed customers, and were rewarded with a predictable return on investment.

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Regional Transmission and Distribution Planning

Decisions and investments made in the coming decade will shape the course of the United States’ power sector, economy, and public health for decades to come. Will this massive investment lock in an inefficient, century-old system reliant primarily on centralized fossil fuel, or will it move us toward a cleaner, more efficient, and economic energy future?

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America’s Power Plan

America’s Power Plan was created as a platform for innovative thinking about how to manage the transformation happening in the electric power sector today. We brought together America’s clean energy thought leaders to assemble information on a package of policies, markets, and regulations to maximize the grid’s affordability, reliability/resilience, and environmental performance. America’s Power Plan work now continues through Energy Innovation.

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Electrification

As power continues to get cleaner, it’s imperative that we plug in other sectors to this decarbonization opportunity.

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The Power Sector Transformation Team