“The future is already here,” said the novelist William Gibson. “It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

What the future might look like in regard to energy is taking shape in the Brunswick region.

Instead of making electricity ratepayers spend between $9 million and $14 million to rebuild a 5-mile transition line, state energy planners and Central Maine Power Co. have come up with “a no wires alternative” that uses efficiency, demand management and battery storage to make sure the lights stay on during hours of peak demand. In addition to having one less power line to look at, consumers are projected to save $8.5 million over the life of the program and Maine will get experience modernizing the electric grid at time when we need to transform the ways that we generate and distribute electricity in the fight against climate change.

To meet our climate goals, we will need to stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. That will require significant upgrades to electrical infrastructure, changing the ways we produce power and the ways that we use it.

It’s a transformation that will cost billions of dollars but it doesn’t have to drive up the price of electricity. This project shows that if the upgrades are done thoughtfully, it could even save energy customers money.

One change that is absolutely necessary to meet the climate goals will be generating more power from renewable sources like wind and solar. The good news is that high demand for photovoltaic panels and wind turbines has resulted in increased manufacturing and collapsing prices. Since there are no fuel costs, reducing the upfront costs of these generation methods translates into lower prices per kilowatt hour for consumers.

But this is not just a case of replacing dirty coal and natural gas power plants with wind farms and solar arrays. Since renewable power is intermittent, the grid needs to be flexible enough to switch between sources so there is always a perfect balance between supply and demand.

This relatively small project, affecting about 8,000 CMP customers in Brunswick, Harpswell and Topsham, gives a sense how those challenges could be addressed.

The most visible way would be the installation of batteries capable of storing 1.7 megawatts of power that would be able to put it back on the grid at times like a warm summer evening when air conditioners are running but the sun is starting to go down.

The utility has committed to building battery backups that could put power on the grid for as long as five hours, reconciling supply and demand when it’s needed most. Wider use of batteries means that you don’t have to build generation capacity that’s only needed a few hours a year.

Less obvious aspects of the plan will be the conservation measures that were designed with the support of state agencies and the Efficiency Maine Trust, the independent agency that helps fund projects to conserve energy in homes and businesses. The project finds ways to use less power, such as having commercial air conditioners briefly cycle off during times of peak demand, preventing blackouts.

Using such techniques is important to control costs: Conservation is always less expensive than generation, so the least expensive kilowatt energy is the one you don’t use.  We will need to build fewer wind turbines, solar farms and transmission lines to meet the demand for clean power the more we can operate efficiently. That’s important as we consider the economic and environmental costs associated with decarbonizing the economy.

This project in Brunswick offers a window into the kinds of considerations and tradeoffs energy planners will have to make on a much larger scale in the months and years ahead. The future is here.

Reprinted from the Portland Press Herald.