State by state, communities, utilities and businesses in the United States are testing, planning and building systems aimed at modernizing the nation’s grid. In the past two years, the process has accelerated. Technological improvements, not government incentives, are fueling much of that growth, and that means the process is likely to continue.


Based on metrics of state support, customer engagement and actual grid operations, California is first in grid intelligence maturity, while Illinois, Texas, Maryland and Delaware round out the top five. The GridWise Alliance measured these results in its annual Grid Modernization Index.


Since 2003, the GridWise Alliance—a Washington, D.C.-based forum of power and information technology industry members—has been watching grid-intelligence trends.


“We’ve been at this 15 years, and we’ve seen lots of changes. But the thing to note is that the pace of change is accelerating,” said Steven Hauser, GridWise Alliance CEO.


That acceleration has surprised some researchers. 


“Grid modernization is often discussed as this great goal for the future, but many major efforts to modernize the electric grid are already underway,” said Autumn Proudlove, manager of policy research at the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) College of Engineering. 


NCSU conducts reports tracking grid-modernization efforts across all 50 states.


"[In the past two years,] I believe more states are particularly initiating grid-modernization or energy-storage studies and investigations," Proudlove said.


The battery is one enabler, and in the case of this energy-storage technology, incentives are still playing a significant role. Energy-storage incentives are emerging in states such as Maryland, which adopted an energy-storage tax credit.


However, the cost of energy storage is coming down as well. In fact, NCSU has covered incentives policies for renewables and efficiency for two decades, but Proudlove said the program may include state storage policies and incentives to its future research.


The value in energy storage is its ability to store power from intermittent energy sources—such as solar panels—and use that energy when it is most needed.


Utilities get involved


Grid-intelligence strategies vary across the country because each state has its own resources, needs and preferences.


“I think this is a good thing because states are taking these local factors into consideration when taking action on grid modernization,” Proudlove said. “It offers an opportunity to test out different approaches and for states to learn from each other.”


In the case of energy storage, states still face the challenge of integrated resource planning (IRP). IRP examines the hourly energy levels, but some benefits of storage can be gained at a sub-hourly level. For that reason, some states are investigating an IRP process revision to better understand the costs and benefits of energy storage.


“I think we will also see these efforts move to new states that haven’t yet taken action on grid modernization, as technology costs come down and they have an opportunity to evaluate the approaches taken by other states," Proudlove said.


Utilities are shouldering much of the effort. California’s Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has enacted a grid-modernization 
plan to take advantage of funds from the California Public Utility Commission through its Electric Program Investment Charge program.


Projects such as these require financial commitment. PG&E’s Grid Modernization Plan includes an annual capital investment of $2 billion over a rolling five-year period to modernize and improve PG&E’s electric transmission and distribution system. Modernization efforts will take place across the entire system, which supports 15 million people and covers a 70,000-square-mile service area in northern and central California.


The utility plans to optimize existing grid assets and prepare for emerging technologies to design and demonstrate grid operations of the future, said Mike Bianco, grid operations solutions vice president, BRIDGE Energy Group. Part of this effort is the synchrophasor project known as Synchrophasor Technology Realization, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. BRIDGE Energy Group is designing and building the synchrophasor network architecture, which allows PG&E to monitor power system behavior using phasor measurement units. The devices take grid measurements to identify and analyze vulnerability and potentially prevent power failures.


BRIDGE Energy Group has led similar projects in Arizona, Washington and New England.


“Other states throughout the Eastern Interconnect are currently in the process of delivery or considering similar synchrophasor initiatives,” Bianco said.


PG&E’s synchrophasor project is in the build and test phase this year. The company has installed phasor measurement units at the Colusa Generating Station in California and created MathWorks models for engineering studies and analysis. The next steps include continued testing and validation of the generation model, defining additional use cases, and evaluating synchrophasor applications.


A smarter Spokane


Eastern Washington utility Avista Corp. is part of a three-year project to investigate smart-city developments and take advantage of new technologies to make energy available, efficient, safe and sustainable. Urbanova is a living laboratory for business and technology developers west of downtown Spokane, Wash., in its University District.


One project focuses on smart and connected street lighting using a networked, sensor-based solution. Avista Corp. joined the effort to install environmental sensors to capture air quality, temperature, ambient light, noise level and motion around each street lamp. In the long run, the maps are intended to respond to sensor data, for instance, dimming based on existing light levels or activity.


Avista Corp. also is participating in an effort to enable shared energy, to capture and then leverage data about energy availability and share that energy accordingly. The point is to optimize the grid and components related to that grid, including power generated from alternative-energy sources, and stored in energy-storage units to get the most value for the customer, said Curt Kirkeby, fellow engineer, Avista Corp.


Kirkeby likens energy transmission to road traffic. Utilities and their customers suffer from slow downs in electricity just like rush hour delays traffic, and Avista Corp. aims to build assets to supply more energy capacity in the same way more lanes accommodate greater traffic. Kirkeby said optimizing traffic needs to be considered for city roads, just like utilities seek to optimize the distribution and use of energy. With meters and storage units, a utility can be better at delivering energy on a rotational basis, for instance. Businesses generating their own energy—from solar units, for instance—become part of that equation, since they can supply the grid, at a price, when they have more than they need.


Research is underway to test how Avista Corp. can accomplish that energy management in the most sensible way. The company is in the conceptual design of a smart city installation, working with partners that include colleges, agencies and technology companies.


“The first phase is intended to make sure there’s a value for all the participants,” Kirkeby said.


The second phase will involve the detailed design and testing of a system in the second half of 2017.


“I think utilities are realizing that something is happening out there [across the country],” Kirkeby said. “Supply options are becoming cheaper.” 


Technology costs continue to drop, and most utilities are responding with investigation—if not full adoption—of more alternative options for an intelligent grid.


“We know the future will be different than today," Kirkeby said. "We’re not going backwards. We know that. Technology is getting cheaper while our capabilities are getting more expensive. For us, the way to stay relevant is to keep up with what’s happening.”


No technology trend is likely to get traction if it doesn’t offer a human benefit, Kirby said, and that’s something technology providers can lose sight of.


“It’s about the people, not the technology,” he said. “Ultimately, what we deliver either enriches people’s lives, or it doesn’t.”


As such, the goal for Avista Corp. is to keep a focus on sustainability, resiliency, safety and health.


Increasing access


Technologies are becoming more accessible and affordable. According to Hauser, the number of rooftop solar-power systems installations have skyrocketed in the past two years, and the cost of batteries is dropping.


“The other big change at the other end of the spectrum is utility operations,” he said.


The systems are becoming digitized, and the linemen are more automated, since they work with computers on their hips and can pinpoint outage information more precisely. Also, states now are talking to each other about what they are accomplishing, sharing pitfalls, challenges and successes.


However, one of the significant challenges is cybersecurity, considering the risks that an electrical system could be hacked.


According to Bryan Nicholson, executive director, GridWise Alliance, the smartphone also has a lot to do with grid modernization. Customer-facing mobile applications make energy use easier to manage and offer benefits to utilities, creating an incentive to digitize.