Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

The press has had much to say about the death spirals on the way for the 
electric-utility industry, thanks to the rapid proliferation of rooftop solar panels and other distributed-energy resources. The thought is customer-owned generation could upend current income streams and place unforeseen stress on local distribution systems that are not designed for a two-way electron flow. However, a recent survey indicates that utilities seem to be adjusting to these changes through incremental improvements in a manner that is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Bridge Energy Group, the Marlborough, Mass.-based consulting firm behind the 2016 Bridge Index Utility Industry Survey, uses the phrase “grid modernization” to describe the emerging step-by-step modifications many of the surveyed utilities are undertaking—and more than half of the 20,000-plus respondents reported their utilities are developing modernization plans. Instead of reaching to develop a futuristic smart grid all at once, these organizations are using their recently deployed smart meters to better understand the actual effects of rooftop photovoltaic (PV) panels and customer-sited batteries. Also, companies are closely watching more ambitious initiatives now underway in California, Massachusetts and New York that could become models for other states’ efforts.

For Forrest Small, Bridge Energy Group’s vice president for grid reliability, a major finding was the overwhelming importance of system reliability, versus specific distributed-generation concerns, in utilities’ grid-upgrade decisions. For 66 percent of all respondents, maintaining and improving reliability was a top objective in grid-modernization efforts, while only 26 percent ranked accommodating distributed generation that high. 

For respondents in California, Massachusetts and New York—which the survey’s developers dubbed the “Grid Mod” states—reliability is even more important, with 73 percent putting this objective at the top of the list. Perhaps because these states also have more distributed-energy resources than other regions, 41 percent of their respondents ranked accommodating distributed generation as a top priority.

Small sees the experiences of those three Grid Mod states as invaluable to utilities in other areas of the country.

“Utilities in other states are looking at them and saying, ‘Gee, I see those same kinds of activities happening. How can I get ahead of this?’” he said. “We [have] got more utilities than expected saying, inside their utility, they are looking at these early leading states.”

Utilities in each of these states are pursuing unique initiatives as directed by their respective regulatory commissions. California already leads the nation in renewable-energy integration, and it has recently adjusted its goals even higher, aiming toward serving 50 percent of its electricity load using renewable resources by 2030. New York’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” is rethinking how the state oversees electric utilities. It has a goal to reduce related greenhouse-gas emissions and boost system resiliency. Similarly, Massachusetts utilities are in the early stages of a statewide grid-modernization effort to better enable a bidirectional flow of data and energy.

Small said he believes investments made in advanced metering infrastructure over the last decade now are paying off, as utilities gain better insight into distribution-grid operations on a real-time basis.

“I think part of the challenge is they lacked information and experience as to what this is going to be like,” Small said. “They didn’t even have the ability to see what load looked like during the day.”

Utilities are receiving data showing distribution grids are more resilient than previously thought.

“I think, in general, it might not be as bad as they expected,” he said. “Things are not going to fall apart, necessarily.”

Smart-meter installation isn’t slowing down either, with 74 percent of responding electric utilities planning deployment of more devices this year. 

Another advanced technology, the distribution management system (DMS), also is becoming more prevalent. More than one-third of respondents reported having such a system in place. A DMS brings information from a range of sensors, meters and other devices together into a single console, which helps operators identify problems before outages occur and reduce the duration of outages once they happen. Planned installations are expected to double that number in the next two years.

Such systems are becoming invaluable during storm events, with 57 percent of respondents indicating that this technology (including smart meters and system-wide data-acquisition systems) is now the primary source of outage information. For Small, it is another indication of the evolution utilities are undergoing. Technology might be advancing by leaps and bounds, but the larger business goals of safety and reliability established more than a century ago remain primary motivators.

“Grid modernization is really about [creating] a well-built infrastructure that’s well-maintained and robust,” he said. “That’s really what they’ve been doing all along. It’s just that now they have a lot of new tools to deal with it.”

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer

Chuck Ross has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. Contact him at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

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