72 hours with 13,500 minds focused on modernizing the world’s electric power distribution grids

by Vince Martinelli

The Horse in Motion by Muybridge (1878)

Electric Power Distribution — Industry in Motion

Understanding a system in motion is never easy. You may not recognize the name Eadweard Muybridge, but it’s likely you are familiar with his photographic study which revealed that a galloping horse is fully airborne at times — a highly dubious conjecture at best prior to his groundbreaking study. Others have been fascinated with motion and what can be learned from studying a snapshot. This past week DistribuTECH (DTECH) took place in San Diego steps from the historic Gaslamp Quarter. DTECH is to the electric transmission and distribution industry what the Detroit Auto Show (NAIAS) is to the automotive industry.

It’s the place to get that instantaneous view on themes and trends that are driving change.

Over three days, roughly 13,500 executives and engineers engaged in modernizing the world’s electric power distribution grids took part in work shops, conferences and an industry trade show to share experiences, establish best practices and learn about new systems that are becoming available to support this transition. Both the distribution grid and the utility business model itself are in transition, the result of customer-led disruption. DTECH provides a great lens to answer how the transition is going and whether or not it is starting to take specific direction.

The Really Big Picture

The grid is a big complex, system and the investments required to maintain and modernize it are significant. The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) recently reported that US investor-owned utilities’ capital spending for the distribution grid is running at nearly $30B per year. This spend includes everything from upgrading aging infrastructure to deploying advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which is both the smart meters and the communications and data management infrastructure to derive maximum benefits. It also includes and array of projects and activities that are grouped under the rubric of “grid modernization,” including voltage optimization for energy efficiency and peak load reduction to manage capacity constraints. Directionally, the intent of grid modernization is to create a new platform for service differentiation to end consumers, overlaid on what will still predominantly be the legacy grid infrastructure.

The DTECH 2017 theme of Harboring Energy Innovation encouraged participants to consider how that capital can best be applied toward grid modernization, achieving broad benefits to grid users, both suppliers and consumers, down to the residential scale.

Scott Drury, President of the host utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, emphasized the innovative approaches they are using as a recognized leader in defining the utility of the future.

“For more than a decade, we’ve been at the forefront of delivering results in support of California’s clean energy agenda. And, we continue to outperform California’s renewable portfolio standard requirements. In fact, over the last 12 months, more than forty percent of the energy delivered to our customers has been renewable,” Drury reported. “We’re also helping our customers go green more directly. We have supported and enabled more than 100,000 private rooftop solar installations in our communities.”

Drury also mentioned that approximately half of the electric vehicles in the US are registered in California, so the state’s utilities are front and center rolling out the first programs to buttress against these tectonic shifts in energy supply and demand. Drury also emphasized that throughout this journey, the utility will not waiver in its obligation to deliver on the core mission of providing these services safely, reliably and affordably.

Fellow keynote speaker Geoff Colvin, Senior Editor-at-Large for Fortune magazine and Author/Commentator on Business and Economic Issues, highlighted the speed with which change is taking place both from a technology and business standpoint. Last week’s record setting energy storage project becomes old news quickly, the bar being raised almost immediately by some other project in another region. Colvin cautioned that one side effect of this dynamic situation is that the regulatory process struggles to keep pace.

Audrey Zibelman, outgoing Chair, New York State Public Service Commission has certainly done her part to help avoid that outcome, taking the reins on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) regulatory proceeding in New York state, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. REV has brought together a broad mix of stakeholders to define a vision of transactive energy markets supported by a Distributed Service Platform (DSP) Provider, spawning trials and projects that provide both near term benefits and establish an experience base.

Another example of creative grid modernization, happening back in our home state, is being led by National Grid as they explore options for managing power delivery to the popular tourist destination of Nantucket. The island is fed primarily from generating plants on the mainland via two undersea cables. Contingency plans to manage peak load growth indicate a need for more capacity in the future, but at the cost of more than $100 M to add a third cable, the utility has been developing “non-wires” alternatives to defer that investment. One alternative, the “VVO/CVR” plan, involves optimizing the system’s voltage profile to reduce energy consumption at peak times. Building on the utility’s experience with smart grid projects in MA and RI, this option will be presented to the state’s regulator for approval.

Postcards from the Grid Edge

The role of secondary automation, systems that regulate and control power in the part of the grid from the distribution transformer to the customer meter, also received attention in a number of conference sessions. Aleksandar Vukojevic of Duke Energy, presenting in the Distribution Automation track, reported on a series of field trials in Ohio where, working with researchers from EPRI and the University of Texas, power electronics in-line power regulators and static var compensators from Gridco Systems and others are being studied with the objective of increasing the effectiveness of utility-side energy efficiency programs.

This class of systems locally mitigates grid constraints, easing the burden on substation and feeder level automation. But innovation near the point of interconnection to the grid also includes making better use of the data mining potential afforded by advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), the combination of “so-called” smart meters with communications and data management systems.

Leading into the show, Itron, one of the leaders in AMI, announced new services that use machine learning to improve the connectivity models of the system and pave the way for a new app community that allows meters and other grid devices to be managed for common system purposes. BC Hydro talked about the way in which such a network could be leveraged for multiple grid services, describing some of the engineering design and operational aspects for managing their 2 million-node system.

From our perspective, these developments highlight some of the advances, often involving multiple partners collaborating on new solutions, taking place today as part of the first stages of grid modernization. Our efforts are focused on being the leader in secondary automation systems, making them as simple as possible to integrate and generating a positive multiplier effect on the value of other related capital investments. Grid modernization is a big job to tackle, and we believe we’ve found a spot where we can contribute.

Captured on film

The Gridco Systems team was in the thick of the activity at DTECH 2017 with hardware displays and active demos, we engaged hundreds of visitors — customers, prospects, consultants, other system providers, partners and others — from the US and around the world. At Gridco’s annual users group meeting, GSF17, a number of our pioneering customers and new prospects shared best practices and strategies on the journey toward deploying secondary automation systems at scale.

The world of electric power distribution is changing.

We believe that grid modernization will achieve the vision of a cleaner energy future with a more resilient grid and many entities and individuals engaging in a more flexible and dynamic marketplace. We further believe that this can be done without compromising safety, reliability or affordability. Low voltage regulating devices and other secondary automation systems are key building blocks to this future and our work with leading utilities is helping to make this outcome possible.

Sometimes in the grid modernization journey it feels like our feet are firmly on the ground and other times, we are suspended in the air, however briefly. Piecing the snapshots together yields new understanding. And from the standpoint of the future of secondary automation, we like what we see.