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T&D World Live: Raising Questions

Sept. 25, 2023
As one presenter put it, the utility industry is now most preoccupied with the three Ds: digitization, decentralization and decarbonization.
Are electric vehicles a coming disruption or a welcome transformation, and how soon is it coming? Are regulators taking the power grid’s needs seriously? How can the energy sector decarbonize while also providing cheap, reliable power? How can utilities best prepare for accelerating natural disasters? How much can we rely on technology to solve our problems? I spent a week in Sacramento at T&D World Live, and these are just a few of the questions I heard most prominently from speakers, exhibitors and attendees, as well as from my colleagues.

As one presenter put it, the utility industry is now most preoccupied with the three Ds: digitization, decentralization and decarbonization. The power grid is producing a massive amount of data, more than ever before. Some of our sessions posited that artificial intelligence or machine learning could be a way of squeezing meaning out of that constant stream of information. At the same time, power generation is spreading out across the grid in a way it was not intended to, as customers and utilities too search for ways to make the grid greener.

While it’s certainly an exciting time to work within this sector, we can admit that the answers to some of the above questions are still open to interpretation and debate, which is one reason why T&D World Live was such a thought-provoking week.

This year’s conference and exhibition saw attendees join us from 13 countries, with more than 55 utility companies represented — more utility attendance than our prior year. We also had more than 60 companies joining us on the exhibit hall floor. Our conference had 34 individual conference sessions, not including our keynote and plenary sessions.

All throughout, the unique factor that appealed to me was how easy it was to network and have interesting talks with our delegates and attendees. Both on the floor and off, we got to spend some quality face time with one another (without needing FaceTime). The show encouraged people to get together and allowed us the oxygen to have real conversations. As our vice president of content and conference chair Teresa Hansen put it during her keynote introduction, the utility industry is unique in our competitive business climate in that utilities do not usually see one another as enemies, which leaves us free to collaborate on the problems we share.

For example, another area of concern that frequently cropped up was: In a time when resources are constrained, the supply chain is occasionally unreliable, political support is uncertain and electricity demand is ever-growing, how can grid operators and electric utilities get the most from what they already have? I moderated a panel of technology providers operating in the grid-enhancing technologies (GETs) space and learned that many of them were from outside North America and were seeking to break into the U.S. power grid market. As someone who uses the US power grid and wants it to improve, I was pleased to see so many people willing to tackle the many problems our infrastructure has to face.

I was also gratified to find that the speakers in another session I presented were old colleagues whose working relationships stretched back years, even though one now served in a public utility and another worked for a technology company. Looking out on the convention floor, it was easy to imagine how many similar relationships were continuing — or perhaps being born — right there at the show.

Those speakers were presenting on streamlining power outage responses, and as all three of us have lived and worked in the part of the country called “Tornado Alley,” we were all familiar with how treacherous severe weather can be. Intensifying disasters and their impact on utilities was a huge topic this year, with many of our participants coming from California utilities like our host utility Sacramento Municipal Utilities District as well as Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — all veterans of battling wildfires. However, we also heard from Mid-Southern and East Coast utilities and their struggles with hurricanes and storm surges, as well as Pacific Northwestern-based professionals who were concerned about the impact of droughts on their resources.

In the coming days and weeks, I plan to keep in good touch with the people I met at the show, not merely to thank them for their support, but in the hopes of starting a good working relationship that I hope will bring our readership more industry insights and a greater understanding of what best practices and technologies can be brought to bear against the problems our power grids face.

Next year, we will be heading into the South, where large investor-owned utilities and huge numbers of cooperatives and municipal utilities work to keep the lights on. So be sure to save the dates, Oct. 1-3 for T&D World Live 2024 at the Hilton Atlanta. I hope you’ll join us and bring along your lessons and expertise.

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