Energy Future, Dallas Style

The year 2016 is a great year to be making your living in energy. Well, maybe not for coal and maybe not for nuclear, but our energy future is bright for those who make a living in the electricity delivery business.

Not that the future is all mapped out. It isn’t. In fact, the way forward can be quite confusing. But for those of us who are opportunistic and creative, the times could not be better. For probably the first time in our professional careers, we have the luxury of creating our own future.

There is no getting around the fact that our delivery grid is aging. Utilities in most developed countries have a large percentage of our bulk transformers needing replacement. And many of our transmission lines are getting long in the tooth and requiring major upgrades.

Although the reasons for investment in the grid are shifting from pure capacity to include reliability, fast restoration and security, we are seeing a version of history repeat itself. We are seven or eight years into a 20- to 25-year period of investment in building out our bulk power system.

When I first came here to T&D World more than 20 years ago, utilities were only building 20-mile transmission line extensions to connect new generation to the grid, and now we are building all sorts of transmission. It took us almost a decade to get the hang of for-profit transmission, the development of independent system operators and such perturbations as FERC Order 1000. Now we are in for another good 15 years of construction as we build out our next-generation grid.

What other major shifts are out there? I mentioned nuclear and coal-fired generation are losing steam to gas-fired generation, wind and solar. We are now seeing energy sources placed closer to our load centers. Think community solar and combined heat and power.

Let’s take a look at our distribution networks. The chaos makes my stomach churn while also making me downright giddy. Depending on the pundits one listens to:

The future is microgrids.

The future is load shifting.

The future is prosumers.

The future is storage.

The future is …

In actuality, we need it all. We need a resilient, flexible, dynamic grid, from both physical and transactive perspectives, if we are to provide needed grid security while accommodating wind, solar, storage and evolving consumer behaviors.

Perhaps the most aggressive initiative in North America is New York State’s Reforming the Energy Vision. This regulatory- driven initiative promotes storage and energy efficiency along with wider deployment of “distributed” energy resources, including microgrids, rooftop solar and storage, combined heat and power, and diesel and gas-fired generators. To pull this off, the state is promoting advanced energy management systems to enhance elasticity of demand and to increase efficiencies. These changes, in turn, will empower customers by allowing them more choice in how they manage and consume electric energy.

Other states including Hawaii, Texas, California and Illinois have initiatives working that are impacting our business models and causing us to redesign our delivery systems.

When I was at the DistribuTECH show in Orlando earlier this year, I found a big jump in startups offering innovative solutions to utilities, whether addressing cybersecurity, stability, reliability or granular control of power flows.

Of course, reading about changes is but a pale imitation to firsthand experiences. To gain this firsthand knowledge, I suggest you make the trip to Dallas, Texas, in early May and take in the IEEE PES T&D expo. This is the biggest event going on in T&D in 2016. Utility host Oncor is pulling out all the stops to make sure your visit is a productive one. In fact, Oncor is throwing in a tour or two so you get a firsthand experience on what is going on in this fine utility.

We have included a show section in this edition of T&D World so please browse through the pages. But let me give you a quick snapshot of what you will find.

IEEE has added a CEO roundtable to discuss all aspects of the distribution system operator to enable dispatch over the distribution system. The super sessions are designed to help us deal with the big issues that are coming our way.

Of course, our bosses want us to bring back cost-effective solutions to our utilities, so this is where the panel sessions, forum sessions and tutorials come into play. But perhaps the best time spent at the show is on the exhibition floor.

Although you might be tempted to schedule every bit of your time from the first minute to the last, I suggest you build in some time expecting to discover the unexpected. Let your imaginations run wild on what can be. After all, we know that the delivery system of the future will be significantly different than the one we now maintain. Let’s make sure we have a hand in shaping our energy future.

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