Flexible demand can help the United States meet more of its energy needs with electricity, and produce more of that electricity from renewable sources, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) concludes in an analysis released last month.
The finding comes from a four-year Electrification Futures Study (EFS) that simulated hour-to-hour operations across the U.S. power system, including operating costs and emissions, to get a sense of the interactions between renewable energy deployment, shifts in energy demand, and different degrees of electrification, the Golden, Colorado-based research lab writes.
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“Overall, our results show that demand-side flexibility is valuable in supporting variable renewable energy to meet new electrified demands. These flexible loads are primarily from optimized vehicle charging and flexible operations of end-use equipment in buildings and industry,” said NREL analyst and lead author Ella Zhou.
“In turn, this combination of high electrification and high renewable energy can drive significant carbon emissions reductions.”
An earlier phase of the EFS had found that the future U.S. grid will be able to meet virtually all its needs without demand-side flexibility, as long as it can count on battery storage and electricity sharing among regions. But ultimately, “all sources of grid flexibility—including transmission and inter-regional power transfers, flexible generation, storage, and demand-side sources of flexibility—will likely be important for operating a power system with high electrification and high renewable energy deployment,” said NREL analyst and EFS principal investigator Trieu Mai.
But the researchers wanted a closer look at an earlier finding that more widespread electrification would increase the importance of demand-side participation in power planning. “They found demand-side flexibility can provide energy services by shifting the timing of electricity demand,” NREL writes. “Demand-side flexibility can also provide operating reserves throughout the year, reducing the need for other generators such as natural gas plants and storage to provide these important grid services.”
Greater flexibility can also “balance the grid during stressful periods by shifting the load to align with wind and solar generation, also reducing the risk of unserved energy and renewable curtailment,” the summary adds, with a particularly pronounced complementary relationship between flexible electric vehicle charging and solar generation. Combining demand-side flexibility with variable renewables can also help decarbonize the energy sector, cutting annual carbon emissions by 8.3% by allowing more renewables to replace fossil fuels.
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