The North American electricity system is changing, on both the generation and user sides of the fence and inbetween.

And change is by no means confined to, eg wind replacing coal-fired power generation. The role of decentralized energy or, to use another term, distributed energy resources (DER) is growing faster than that of conventional, central generation across the continent – so says Navigant Consulting and Public Utilities Fortnightly previewing a utility survey report to be published next month.

Both generator and customer behaviour is changing – and these changes are inevitably altering the way utilities operate, with electricity storage coming to the fore. Some 90% of US utility managers believe that the growth of the various distributed energy resources will force a major shift in utility business models, says Navigant. However utilities are at various stages of integrating DER, into their systems, with some unprepared for the impact they will have. And there is less agreement on just how quickly the shift will take place; not for a decade, says some.

By far the most prevalent of these distributed resources will be new solar PV generation, although measures to improve end-use energy efficiency and demand response initiatives – both on the consumer side – and new energy storage capabilities will also be important.

But the US electricity system is not changing fast enough for outgoing President Obama, who hosted a summit meeting on scaling-up renewable energy and storage with smart markets earlier this month. The White House pointed to progress made with new renewable generation over recent years, adding that ‘smart’ electricity reforms – such as demand response measures and energy storage – have the potential to further accelerate change.

While the US doubled its energy storage capability to 500 MW in the last year, more is needed. Hence the Summit, at which 33 state and private sector commitments to accelerate integration into the grid of renewables and storage projects were announced. Together, they should add up to at least 1.3 GW of storage procurement or deployment in the next five years, says the White House.

The man in street is well aware of the growth of renewables and the scaling-back of coal-burning in power stations. But the young and developing revolutions in how utilities work and in consumer behaviour (solar panels anyone?) are at least as important to the overall big picture of change to US energy.