Line Contractor

Finding the Balance: Examining the top priorities for transmission and distribution

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Published On
Mar 15, 2022

When $73 billion of new federal funds flow into U.S. grid modernization, who will ensure these upgrades succeed? What will it take for the grid to be resilient in the face of extreme climate change?

Line contractors will want to know what the “use of funds” will look like, since their contracts will be shaped by those facts on the ground. Of course, a utility often has its own electricians or trains its own crews and won’t necessarily hire outside contractors. But we all need to know what the experts are thinking.

To find some of the big shifts underway in the nation’s transmission and distribution system, Black & Veatch, a construction engineering firm in Overland Park, Kan., surveyed nearly 500 U.S. electric sector stakeholders. Two-thirds of respondents, when asked about their top concerns for grid development over the next 3–5 years, cited “the generation mix, with fewer traditional base load units and more utility-scale renewable sources.” Further underscoring the evolution of the energy sector, aging infrastructure—which for years has been ranked by respondents as their foremost concern—tumbled to third, giving way to two other priorities: renewables integration and cybersecurity.

Advancing T&D technology

Todd Allmendinger, director of research and consulting at sustainability research firm Cleantech Group, identified a few of the leading innovators focused on the grid. He has been tracking companies that bring artificial intelligence to grid planning. He cites Envelio, a German-based start-up founded in 2017 that created a platform for distribution grid operators to digitize energy planning and operation processes.

Allmendinger said Envelio successfully developed “a dynamic data-input system, using machine-learning and neural-network modeling to develop future grid scenarios for short-, medium- and long-term planning out to 2030.”

The company already has a strong foothold in its home market, with international projects in new locations, including the United States and Brazil (where regulators are enforcing a capacity map for distributed energy resources).

Without electricity, there are no smartphones, no computers, no data centers, no communications network, no industrial internet of things—no modern digital society.

Allmendinger is enthusiastic about Cyberhawk, which uses drones for aerial inspection and surveying services. Scottish company SP Energy Networks, a client since the beginning, has now fully switched to drone technology for transmission network inspection.

Electricity is fundamental to powering the current and future digital era. Without it there are no smartphones, no computers, no data centers, no communications network, no industrial internet of things—no modern digital society. A more electric and digital world is key to addressing climate change and enabling a more sustainable and resilient future.

The grid is moving from a one-directional flow of energy to a bidirectional network, where electricity is generated and consumed by new “participants” connected to the grid, including renewable energy (solar, wind turbines, biomass), microgrids, electric vehicles and energy-storage systems.

Cybersecurity concerns

Utilities are required to manage a 50-year-old rolling landscape of people, processes, technology, disruption and regulation. This now includes the digital world and the inherent cybersecurity challenges that come with it.

Electric utilities are applying digital operations technologies and information technologies to manage their electric networks in a smarter, more integrated and more real-time fashion, enabling all the new and connected participants.

The convergence of digital and electric worlds ushered in a new era of transformation, but with change comes risk. As the world moves toward a more agile, software-defined future, security and safety should be a top concern.

Cybersecurity is a very broad subject with many layers, all of which affect every inch of electric utilities, from operations to business development.

The ever-evolving threat landscape starts with secure operational technology to protect monitoring and control processes for assets and technology.

Furthermore, the analogy that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link also holds true when it comes to cybersecurity. Utility operating systems must be physically and digitally secure. This security must span the entire connected operating system, from the field to the control room.

The engineering requirement to always balance electricity supply and demand across the network to ensure a safe, secure and reliable supply of electric service remains constant.

With new energy participants connected to utility networks, there is an increasing need to ensure real-time control and operation management and balance that supply with the demand for reliable power.

About the Author
Gordon Feller

Gordon Feller

Gordon Feller has worked to bring new ideas into the electrical contracting world since 1979. His articles have been published in more than 30 magazines, and he has worked with dozens of utilities, associations, investors and regulators. Reach him at...

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