Pushback: Your home’s power plant could save our energy grid

Al Norman

Al Norman


Published: 05-01-2024 6:01 AM

Tonight, voters in Wendell will act on a new general bylaw regarding licensing requirements for battery energy storage systems. Last Saturday, Shutesbury voters adopted a very similar bylaw. By voting “yes” on this bylaw, Wendell residents will generate a powerful message to both energy companies who are pushing for industrial-scale projects and faster permitting, and to the governor and state officials who view small, home rule governments as “barriers to responsible clean energy infrastructure development.”

Two governors, the state Legislature, and the Supreme Judicial Court are all promoting one path for how to achieve clean energy goals. In 1985, the Legislature passed a law granting solar facilities “protection” from local zoning bylaws. In 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law establishing a 1,000 megawatt-hour energy storage target by the end of 2025.

In 2020, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs created a “2050 Decarbonization Roadmap” saying the amount of solar power needed by 2050 “exceeds the full technical potential in the Commonwealth for rooftop solar.”

In 2022, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that “large scale systems are key to promoting solar energy.” In 2023, Gov. Maura Healey signed an executive order creating a commission to “accelerate siting and permitting of clean energy infrastructure … to swiftly remove barriers” to the development of clean energy projects.

“The clean energy transition can’t wait,” Healey said. “We’re going to need a lot of new infrastructure, and we’re going to need it fast,” added Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll.

These state policies reinforce the mantra that the only way for Massachusetts to decarbonize is to build large, and build fast. By promoting “expedited permitting,” the governor has left local communities no permitting power. It is these very communities which could play a significant role in meeting the state’s energy goals. You don’t hear public officials talking about “Virtual Power Plants” (VPP), but you will.

According to the MIT Technology Review, “A virtual power plant is a system of distributed energy resources — like rooftop solar, electric vehicle chargers, smart water heaters — that work together to balance energy supply and demand. A VPP is a way of ‘stitching together’ a portfolio of small resources, while reducing the energy system’s carbon footprint. The ‘virtual’ network has no central physical facility.”

Conventional power plants have no way to communicate with distributed energy resources — the end users — like the home with rooftop solar, a Powerwall battery in the basement, and an EV charger. Grid operators shave peak demand by controlling networks of smart thermostats that pre-cool homes on days before peak surges occur. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular services can coordinate hundreds of thousands of distributed devices, increasing grid reliability.

Green Mountain Power, the Vermont utility company, has operated a VPP for seven years. Customers can lease two Tesla Powerwall batteries for 10 years at half the retail cost. Green Mountain Power gets a source of stored power it can draw from during peak demand. Customers can enroll in a “Bring Your Own Device” program, selling a level of their battery capacity for cash.

Four thousand customers and 18 megawatts of energy storage from small batteries are enrolled in the program. The utility saved $3 million in energy peaks in 2020 due to VPP. Eversource also has a ConnectedSolutions program that rewards customers for allowing the company “to use the energy stored in their battery at times of high demand.”

In a New Yorker article six months ago, environmentalist Bill McKibbon quoted the federal Department of Energy as predicting VPPs could be handling 20% of peak power demand across the country by 2030, at a cost 40% to 60% below current plants. Customers could save 20% on their bills.

“With the advent of the Internet, every person became a potential content producer,” McKibbon writes, “and was connected laterally to everyone else. Now the electric grid is belatedly starting to follow that model, with millions of homes and businesses becoming energy suppliers and storage nodes.”

Urban expropriation of our rural resources is not new. In 1938, four towns were flooded to send water to eastern Massachusetts. In 1972, the Northfield Mountain pumped storage plant opened to meet peak power needs of the metro grid. In 1974, the proposed twin nukes in Montague, and in 2014, the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline used our county as an energy passthrough.

The battery system on Wendell forestland will ship its power to greater Boston. Dispossession by government/corporate fiat is a “barrier” to our energy future. A house-to-house infrastructure of thousands of end users is local power that “can’t wait.”

Al Norman’s Pushback column appears twice per month in the Recorder.