Yet another advantage of virtual power plants is that they make it easier to regulate renewable energy sources and to get the sort of control over the amount of electricity going into the grid that a conventional fossil-fuel-burning electrical plant would have.
"A virtual power plant can include, again, little batteries for backup generator, but it can also under the general term, include what's called 'demand response,'" Schofield says.
A utility with a virtual power plant can send messages to customers to turn down their usage at certain times, possibly offering a gift certificate for a local restaurant as an incentive. In parts of the country where utilities buy electricity from various suppliers, virtual power plants could help utility companies be responsive to the market price for electricity.
Indirectly, those incentives can help facilitate renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Schofield says. Because they're variable — meaning the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing — the amount of electricity they provide must be adjusted to the ability they can accommodate. Traditionally, the balance is offset by fossil fuel providers.
"A virtual power plant is intended to function the same, or to provide the same sort of services that a big power plant can," Schofield says, "and to be dispatchable, meaning I can communicate to it and tell it to do something different. The ramp up or down is part of the value."
By interacting with consumers and recruiting them to help with managing energy use, virtual power plants could play a role in solving one of the utility industry's longtime problems: peak usage.
"A significant majority of the cost of providing electricity is just to handle those peak days," Schofield says. "If you can get consumers of all types to use their consumption in those ways, maybe brush their teeth with a regular toothbrush instead of their electric ... then you can take out a lot of cost from the system. And you can also take out a lot of need for burning fossil fuels. But this is historically very difficult, because ... the average person isn't going to inconvenience themselves very much."
But he also says that's changing. Younger generations are more sustainably conscious, and everyone has a smartphone. Perhaps one day you'll get an alert on your phone that says "Electric usage alert. Please turn down your thermostat." And you'll earn incentive points if you do it. Would you?
Schofield says you might. "Mostly people want to do a good thing because actually they're paying a fixed price, and the actual cost to them of consuming that electricity is pretty small," he says. "But if you get thousands of people all responding, then that little bit adds up to something meaningful."