The District of Columbia’s Public Service Commission (PSC) opened Formal Case No. 1130 in June 2015 to explore modernizing energy distribution and the associated impacts of distributed generation and microgrids on the existing grid system. The PSC is soliciting comments on the docket until August 31, 2015. It appears that at this stage, the PSC’s interest is purely informational and that the PSC is interested in making the process collaborative. The PSC will be holding a kick off event on October 1, 2015 to set out an initial overview of the current energy distribution system in the District and to discuss the future plans of the Commission’s investigation.

The process of lighting up homes and businesses under the purview of the PSC can be divided into two components – generation and delivery. Generation was modernized in 1999 as the District was transformed into a non-utility competitive market. Today, District residents have the right to choose which company generates their electricity and can even opt-in to community solar or virtual net metering arrangements. Improving electricity distribution is the next challenge for the PSC and the city where grid resiliency, distributed generation, and energy efficiency concerns need to be balanced against maintaining grid safety, reliability, and cost-effective standards. These concerns are at the center of the PSC’s latest formal case.

The PSC is interested in distributed generation and microgrids because the nation’s capital suffers from that same challenge as other major U.S. cities – there simply isn’t enough vacant and available land to develop large scale projects. For cities to modernize and upgrade generation to cleaner resources, distributed generation in the form of residential and commercial rooftop solar, in-house combined heat and power systems (CHP), and demand-side energy efficiency upgrades may be the only options. To develop these resources, the PSC and the city must look to both incentivize the on-site generation resources and ensure their interconnectivity to the grid.

Emerging Electricity Delivery Modernization Concerns

One impact being explored in the formal case is the affect distributed generation and microgrids may have on the safety and reliability of the existing grid system as a whole. In many competitive generation states and jurisdictions like the District, the local utility maintains the distribution lines that connect grid level power producing assets to homes and businesses. As many smaller distributed generation assets come online, two concerns emerge that must be addressed. First, the distribution lines may become overwhelmed by the influx of new generation. Second, long transmission and distribution lines may no longer be the most efficient form of electricity delivery. Instead, localized distribution may be the answer to increase the efficiency of electricity production and consumption.

Microgrids play a major role in the idea of localized distribution. A microgrid is a smaller grid system that carries local distributed energy resources along local distribution lines. Microgrids can isolate or “island” themselves from the larger utility grid, thus improving resiliency as macrogrid events will not jeopardize power reliability within a particular microgrid. For example, an islanded microgrid system would have been useful in the District when an outage of a Potomac Electric Power Company (“PEPCO”) transformer in Maryland caused power disruptions in downtown D.C. and at the White House. If a system of localized generation and distribution networks had been in place, the transformer outage may not have plunged these areas into darkness.

The evolution of privately owned microgrids may be particularly challenging since the utility currently owns the entire fixed wire distribution network. Additionally, regarding distributed generation, the utility is the sole arbiter of what assets are able to come online without a regulatory or legislative mandate. Thus, the proceeding initiated by the PSC may look to address the barriers that inhibit the proliferation of these efficiency measures in the District.

PSC—Eyes on REV

In an age of carbon consciousness, energy efficiency and cyber attacks, the PSC is interested in figuring out how to make distributed generation and microgrids a part of the modern strategy. Given the early stage of this proceeding, it is unclear how energy delivery modernization will be accomplished, but the District will likely keep a close eye on the New York process for lessons learned with its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) docket. REV is revamping incumbent utilities as “platforms for distributed technologies,” and envisions these platforms as a transmission line “gatekeepers” with grid demand response, energy efficiency, and distributed generation coordination under the utilities’ purview. The modest four page PSC Order initiating the delivery modernization proceeding is not yet proposing measures of REV proportion, but notably the New York process has been thus far a cooperative proceeding with the incumbent utilities, which may serve as a model for collaboration in the nation’s capital.