Portolan sailing charts are navigational maps based on the observations of the early explorers. They are incredibly detailed, well-surveyed, and beautiful. I learned recently that their origin can be traced to 1270, when King Louis and his fleet were blown off course as they sailed to Tunis. The king demanded to know their location, so the sailors brought him a map based on compass directions and estimated navigational distances.
What I find interesting about these maps is that they include both existing and imagined landscapes. It appears that early explorers did their best to accurately document coastlines and ports. The unknown, however, they filled in with idealized geographies. Mateo Prune’s famous 1559 Chart of the Mediterranean, for example, details both real locations and fabricated places such as the fictional Isola de Maydi.
I share this anecdote because I feel that as utilities move beyond the traditional business models and grid architectures, this sort of fill-in-the-blank, inventive thinking is increasingly important. As new technologies for energy generation emerge and the economic landscape shifts, adaptation is crucial. Utilities must define a new paradigm which will require mapping out previously uncharted territory.
The Rocky Mountain Institute recently published an insightful report titled Reimagining the Utility which outlines important keystones in the restructuring process. As the report points out, “Electric utilities must modernize to serve new economic and policy objectives, including managing an increasingly distributed and decarbonized power system.” This, it explains, will require reevaluating the scope of utility function as well as the role of energy market competition.
Some of the important landmarks to define are: Who will own distributed energy resources? How will revenues flow between the utility, third parties, and customers? How will a future electricity system accommodate large amounts of distributed energy resources?
What is certain is that creating a new energy model will require collaborative partnerships between utilities, regulators, and stakeholders. It will require identifying and charting the known landmarks and filling in the rest with imagined, best-case solutions.
As this new vision becomes clearer, what, in your opinion, are the important landmarks to define?