Most of us know our power delivery industry quite well. We know the history, we know the existing technologies, and we know the utility culture. What we are not so sure of is the future of T&D and what role we might play going forward.
Last August, I attended the CIGRE event, which is held every other year in Paris, France. Thought leaders from all corners of the globe convened to share their vision and to investigate emerging technologies. This is a somewhat unique event in that it has a really strong mix of technologists, utility executives and industry strategists.
Claudio Facchin, president of ABB’s Power Grids division, was the keynote speaker. He shared a bigger picture vision of the change that is swirling about the T&D industry. Facchin encouraged us all to take into account the global population shift to urban centers. Take a look at this demographic he shared.
After his presentation, Facchin kindly carved out an hour to meet with me, and we had a chance to delve a bit deeper into the technical detail behind his opening comments. Facchin believes our evolving power system must be increasingly flexible and interconnected, and it must simultaneously be more reliable and more intelligent. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need a robust bulk power grid. On the contrary, Facchin says that the increased need for reliable energy sources to feed our urban regions is driving the development ultra-high-voltage AC and DC transmission. And, with a reduction in the number of operating nuclear and coal-fired plants, and a corresponding growth in gas-fired, wind and solar generation facilities, we need additional grid stabilization capacity. Local communities are also looking to take a more active role in determining their own energy. Facchin says the shift to distributed energy resources and microgrids is global, and this shift is being driven by falling prices of solar panels and a corresponding reduction in the prices of grid-scale battery storage systems.
What Will Our Future Grid Look Like?
We will see increasing digitalization and automation of the grid. We will see increasing deployment of sophisticated software including the convergence of information and operational technologies. And, of course, cyber security is the elephant in the room. We can’t ignore it, but we all know it will consume an ever-greater percent of our resources.
Looking at our future grid, we are now developing a new digital vernacular. New business models are being proposed that will result in new delivery processes. New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision strategy is resulting in multiple companies developing distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) products. Expect distribution utilities to morph into independent distribution system operators with the ability to perform economic dispatch (including dispatch from one prosumer to the next) and to control power flows with advanced digital devices as far down in the network as the individual feeder. With many regions demanding that renewable targets be hit, I expect we will see a green component for our DERMS products to dispatch.
Of course, we will see tremendous advancement in extracting value out of our new advanced metering infrastructure investments. Data analytics will play a key role. And we will need interoperability standards that will allow us to assure plug-and-play opportunities with software and devices.
Dynamic pricing is going to happen but with drastic reductions in the cost of solar and of storage, with contracts in place to enable load shifting and load curtailment, and with the ubiquitous use of gas-fired generation to back up green energy sources, it is unlikely we will see the tremendous price spikes we saw back in the Enron era.
We Are Seeing Great Strides in Future-Proofing T&D
To future proof our T&D systems, we don’t need to accurately read the tea leaves. We don’t need to put a call in to the best psychic. We don’t need to talk with the latest futurist. Instead, we need to design and operate our delivery systems so that they will provide us with flexibility and adaptability. And when we future-proof our T&D systems, we will also future-proof our careers.