Introducing the Electricity Innovation Lab

In RMI’s recent book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for a New Energy Era, we suggest it’s possible to transform the U.S. electricity system over the next 40 years to one that is clean, secure, and customer-centric, all while not sacrificing affordability or reliability. Such a future—highly efficient, 80 percent renewable, largely distributed—represents a profound shift from today’s electricity system.

Is it technically and economically possible to have a mostly renewable electricity system? Our research and analysis says yes. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s recently released Renewable Electricity Futures Study—the most sophisticated study to date on this topic—arrives at a similar conclusion.

But just because it can be done doesn’t mean that it will be done—or that it will be easy.

The key question remains: how do we get from here to there? RMI and others have made some recommendations, including leveling the playing field between distributed and centralized resources, modifying system operations to better accommodate variable renewables, and shifting regulatory and business models. But many of the specifics still need to be developed and the pathway is hazy at best.

There are several reasons why developing a path forward is tricky:

  • The electricity system is technically complex and reliability-driven, and transforming it is akin to rebuilding an airplane while in flight.
  • As a society, we have not solved this kind of challenge before, meaning we can’t simply replicate the same thing that worked last time.
  • The system is transitioning from being centralized and hierarchical to more complex and distributed.

"eLabIt’s apparent, then, that no single entity can solve the problem and that just having the “right answer” or the “technical solution” isn’t sufficient. In response, RMI is convening the Electricity Innovation Lab, or eLab.

eLab is a working group of decision makers and thought leaders from across the electricity sector that will convene over the course of several years. (See list of advisors)

Together, the group will work to develop innovative but practical solutions to the key technical, economic, business, and regulatory challenges facing the sector. To support this work, RMI is employing proven innovation approaches and processes in collaboration with Reos Partners, world experts in process design and facilitation to address complex problems.

eLab will focus on the distribution edge—the interface between the electricity system’s macrogrid and the rapidly growing portfolios of energy assets, control systems, and end-use technologies ranging from electric vehicle charging to distributed solar PV to microgrids. It is this distribution edge where we see the biggest challenges and the biggest opportunities for transformation. To address these issues, eLab will initially be guided by three key questions:

  • How can we understand and effectively communicate the costs and benefits of distributed resources?
  • How can we harmonize business models of utility and distributed resource developers?
  • How can we accelerate the deployment of distributed energy resources?

Today, eLab launches with a kickoff meeting in San Diego with an extraordinary group of 30 participants.

This week, we’ll focus on assessing the situation currently facing the electricity sector with respect to distributed resource development, engaging participants to foster rapid learning and practical innovation, and setting the research, analysis, and problem-solving priorities to guide eLab’s work over the course of the year.

Through eLab, we hope to support a dialogue between key actors that brings clarity to both the challenges and the possible solutions. We will work with participants to not only develop new ideas, but also to consider application within particular situations and geographic locations.