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Ten years after a massive blackout that affected a huge swath of the U.S. and Canada, experts are still thinking about ways to make the electricity system more stable. The grid is experiencing growing pains these days. It's not that demand for electricity is expanding, the sources of electricity are. There are more inconsistent sources - wind farms, solar panels - and that shift is just beginning. States are requiring more renewable power to fight climate change.
And as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, customers will play a big role in helping grid operators manage these clean but finicky sources of power.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Hawaii is thousands of miles from anywhere and has to ship in oil to make electricity. So the state wants to replace these costly dirty imports with clean homegrown power.
Nohea Hirahara is an engineer for the Hawaiian Electric Company.
NOHEA HIRAHARA: The state has an initiative to reach 40 percent renewable energy by 2030. I believe that's the most aggressive out of any state. And it's coming up fast.
SHOGREN: She's talking to me from the big room where grid operators manage the flow of electricity for the island of Oahu.
HIRAHARA: Kind of looks like space launch control center.
SHOGREN: There are 12 screens, each 12-feet tall. One of the screens shows how much electricity is coming from wind farms and solar panels on people's houses.
It used to be, when Hawaiians needed electricity, grid operators just turned up their oil and coal fired generators. But now, as they're relying more on wind and solar, their balancing act has gotten a lot trickier. Wind is a particular challenge. It doesn't blow all the time, so it always needs a back up. But keeping oil-fired generators at the read is expensive.
Nohea Hirahara is working on a new remedy for that problem and it's all about customers. She's recruited big energy users, tempting them with discounts.
HIRAHARA: We have hotels. We have hospitals. We have offices. We have a lot of condos, a couple of schools.
SHOGREN: Here's how the idea works.
HIRAHARA: If, for instance, the wind was decreasing quickly right now...
SHOGREN: A grid operator would send a message to these customers.
HIRAHARA: And the customers would reduce or shut down air conditioning, heat pumps - big energy users.
SHOGREN: So the grid operators wouldn't have to switch on another expensive oil plant. So far, only a few dozen companies have signed up.
HIRAHARA: It's very experimental.
SHOGREN: But Hirahara says eventually a partnership with customers like this could help keep the demand and supply of electricity balanced, even in the face of fickle winds. Hirahara already has seen the power of customers. In another program, 36,000 customers have signed up to let grid operators switch off their water heaters when demand for power is high. That saves everybody money and limits the use of dirty fossil fuels.
DANIEL KAMMEN: What's going on in Hawaii is very much a harbinger of what's going to come nationwide, or what I hope comes nationwide.
SHOGREN: University of California Berkeley professor Daniel Kammen researches the electricity system.
KAMMEN: The grid that we have now, which is really the grid of the old energy systems, is built around large centralized power plants, sending power in very predictable ways from those power plants to customers.
SHOGREN: To get ready for renewable energy, experts say a closer relationship between utilities and customers is key. For example, Kammen has solar panels on his house.
KAMMEN: If it's a really hot day and our utility calls an alert, where they want people to minimize consumption, if I turn down appliances in my home, then I can sell more power back to the utility, which benefits me but also benefits them.
SHOGREN: And Kammen says the grid of the future also needs more ways to store clean energy. Customers can help here, too.
KAMMEN: In California, for example, the wind blows much more strongly at night when most people's cars are at home in the garage. And so, if wind power comes on to the grid, when the demand is low - 'cause most of us are sleeping - but gets put into our cars, that's finding a way to store it.
SHOGREN: For this relationship to take off, the grid needs to get a lot smarter and enter the world of big data. Right now, people are sending emails and pager signals. In the future, computers will manage this complicated dance.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
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