A Human-Centered Approach to Distribution System Planning

Jan. 23, 2023
PGE’s distribution system planning is our first step toward creating a 21st century community-centric distribution system.
A human-centered approach to distribution planning puts people at the center of our planning and infrastructure projects. It evolves our distribution planning process, advances energy justice and integrates diversity, equity and inclusion. It is also key to meeting our ambitious decarbonization goals. It assists in the transition from traditional technical outreach to an equitable community engagement practice, which includes the voices of those who have been historically excluded. Traditionally, utilities have not focused much on the human capital of our planning, but rather organized around systems and infrastructure, while doing our best to make sure it was safe and reliable in the face of potential catastrophic failure.

Distribution system planning (DSP) is a sophisticated process composed of several steps that includes load forecasting, identifying grid needs and arriving at a set of recommended projects to be funded to solve those needs that modernize the grid. As an environmental scientist, my role is to contemplate the intersection of people, the environment and systems and the long-term impacts of this work.

A key element of human-centered planning is the transformation and enablement of a modernized grid that uses large-scale Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) integration. It is a hyper-local approach to clean, resilient technologies and resources, specifically solar photovoltaic systems, storage capabilities and electric vehicles. These resources must benefit the communities in which they are located and serve our most vulnerable communities.

When I took this role in 2019 and was confronted with the challenges of re-imagining how Portland General Electric planned and engaged with customers and communities, I embraced the opportunity and assessed everything that was happening in the world relative to climate change and applied it to the DSP.

PGE’s DSP is our first step toward creating a 21st century community-centric distribution system. We envision a system that primarily uses DERs to accelerate decarbonization and electrification and provide direct benefits to communities, especially the environmental justice community. Our DSP is a path forward to equitably modernize our distribution system, while improving safety, reliability and ensuring resilience and affordability at fair and reasonable costs.

In 2019, the Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) opened a public process into distribution system planning for investor-owned electric utilities. Throughout the course of the process a group of interested parties started to attend the public meetings, including community-based organizations and individuals, who wanted to understand how utilities were making investment decisions.

Community engagement was the main objective of our human-centered planning efforts. We wanted to understand our community’s energy needs, desires, barriers, interest in clean energy planning and projects and where opportunities exist. We approached the development of an equity metric in three phases.

  • Phase 1 used electricity burden, an already used metric in the industry
  • Phase 2 involved developing an equity metric that reflected our service area
  • Phase 3 is a longer-term process of building a statewide-vetted equity metrics that can be used as the future standard by all parties

In response to partner feedback and recommendations, we began integrating socioeconomic and demographic data and mapping into our planning processes. The tools used to analyze the data were Greenlink’s Equity Map data, our customer payment metrics and public data sources such as the U.S. Census American Community Survey, US Department of Energy’s Low-Income Energy Affordability Data tool and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJScreen. From that, we began to implement equity within our current decision-making framework by developing equity definitions, identifying key variables to track equity in programming and quantifying equity metrics.

During our process we held a total of 23 workshops between the two audiences: technical and non-technical.

  • Our technical audiences attended ‘partner’ workshops where we took a deep dive into our analysis, data, sources and assumptions. Also, we invited our partners to provide feedback and assist in refining our approach where necessary.
  • Our non-technical audience participated in community-focused workshops where we thoughtfully curated Utility 101 content that was accessible and covered energy related planning topics.

The overarching goal of the workshops were to provide learning opportunities to participants, build awareness of the DSP and share our processes for long-term planning initiatives. This method led to creating a space for dialogue with our community partners and how their contributions would help inform our future planning.

Community engagement is based on the belief that those impacted by a decision, program, project, or service system need to be involved in the decision-making process. This belief promotes PGE’s community engagement philosophy of “Nothing about me without me.” Which is our guiding principle for conducting and evolving toward equitable community engagement practices. Additionally, we believe a clean energy future that is affordable and equitable requires a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our business.

We commit to engaging communities that have been historically excluded from utility planning processes; doing so will ensure that our plans  achieve a holistic approach that consistently applies an equity and resiliency lens.

Angela Long is senior manager of Strategy and Planning at Portland General Electric. PGE serves approximately 980,000 customers in a service area of 2 million people in 51 cities.

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