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Top 10 Reasons Why The Electric Utility Industry is Gearing Up Like Never Before

The IEEE Power and Energy Society conference in Chicago was a blast from the future and not the past! A decade or so ago these meetings were almost totally dominated by male seniors trooping back and forth between technical presentations, many of which were pretty dull. The show floors had mostly the same-old-same-old. And, sadly enough during those years of industry reconstruction, there were the job seekers exchanging business cards (with serrated edges) identifying them as consultants or leader of a ‘group,’ along with resumes where appropriate.

Things have sure changed over the last few years. Younger engineers, more women, lots of laughter on the show floors. Even the name has changed from Power Engineering Society to Power and Energy Society. The name change reflects the increasing breadth and, of course, challenges that the industry faces. Good engineers love challenges and boy, do we have them.

The level of enthusiasm was so high that you had to read the National Electric Code in your hotel room to go to sleep!

So what has changed over the past decade? Why is there so much optimism and excitement? Here are 10 reasons that come off the top of my balding head, and in no particular order:

The lasting impact of stimulus funding: This set in motion competition for taxpayer funding to build out the advanced metering infrastructure to support the meters and also support operational needs. This was the biggest injection of advanced technology in the industry since the power transformer.  ‘Nuff said.

Consumers finally wake up! The smart meters led to a promotion avalanche trying to convince electric customers that the advanced meters were good for them, when in truth the main benefits were operational, highly technical and not easily understood by the customer. We kept poking them until they took notice and now they’re demanding better service. They’re even actually looking at their electric bill and questioning rate structures.

New entrants to the utility arena, particularly IT and communications: These technologies are not only needed to enable a smart system – they may even grow to form the core of the utility business. And now, for Pete’s sake, Google has announced that it will be selling rooftop solar!

Changing industry business model: Central generation, like the muscle cars of the ‘60s, may fade into nostalgia. Ever think you’d see big companies like NRG and Duke form subsidiaries to provide rooftop solar to customers? Now they are scaring the daylights (sunlight?) out of myriads of solar suppliers and installers who’ve had an unconstrained market with utility customers.

Available funding: A crummy U.S. economy and decreasing US industry expansion has led to a rapid drop off in load growth over the last couple of decades. Even as the economy rebounds, increasing distributed generation, demand management and energy efficiencies will keep load growth less than one percent for the utility future. Utilities make money from ROI – either through new construction or replacement. In the past new construction was driven by the need to serve new load. For a hundred years we ‘grew big so we could get the money to grow even bigger’. That business model is not going to work in the future. But now we have the opportunity to not only renew aging infrastructure that’s past its useful life and is fully depreciated, but we can replace it with something better that incorporates the latest whiz-bang smart technology. Maybe we can buy enough time to keep our shareholders happy while we evolve to a new, sustainable paradigm.

System threats: Mother Nature has always been able to knock us for a loop but maybe never as thoroughly as with Superstorm Sandy.  Studying cybersecurity has become a governmental pastime and a secure source of consultant income. Physical security is becoming recognized as perhaps the biggest threat and the hardest to prevent. As a result of these looming challenges, we’re seeing the beginnings of a trend to harden the system in every way. Maybe the biggest bang (don’t say that!) for the buck is in contingency planning. More portable HV transformers and breakers kept in inventory, perhaps. Maybe pre-trained vendor and manufacturer ‘swat teams’ made available to get the system up and running after a storm or attack (cyber or otherwise).

Demand management is working: The dream of using negawatts in place of megawatts is coming true. Large system operators such as PJM are finding that demand management combined with new algorithms and operational protocols can reduce the need for new generation and help weather system disturbances.

Wind and other intermittent resources are here to stay: Out of necessity we’ve had to figure out how to operate our generation units closer to their limits. And T&D folks have had to pull dynamic thermal rating technology out of the closet and recognize it as legitimate. All this has led to the realization that 20% or more of our generation can come from wind and solar without dire consequences - provided we manage them properly.

Synchrophasors: Having designed perhaps the first sychrophasor circuitry years ago, I have a particular fondness for this technology and where it’s going. As the topology of new transmission and the loading of existing transmission systems change to adapt to distributed generation, synchrophasors can help keep the system stable. Now some researchers in California have found that applying synchrophasor technology to the distribution system may help identify and resolve power quality issues caused by rooftop solar. Who’d a thunk?

Utility brain drain has a good side: About half of the nation’s utility engineers will reach retirement age this year. Are they going to stick around? Our Reader Poll (http://tdworld.com/polls/featured-poll-what-will-it-take-keep-you-your-job) indicates that about a third of them plan to leave and work elsewhere. That puts the burden on utilities to attract new engineers either directly from universities or from other industries. And that’s going to require offering salaries competitive with the traditional high tech industries. The technical sand box will also need to expand along with the freedom to play in it. All this is good news for the engineers and technologists who remain in the industry. They will be prized indeed!

Those are some industry drivers and enablers that I’ve been thinking about – by no means complete.  They’re changing every day. Agree? Disagree? Got some more?

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