The utility industry is facing extraordinary change. Demands for clean power, an aggressively managed carbon footprint, customer choice and preferences, innovative solutions, and advances in smart technology and control systems are all driving that change. Customers, in part with third-party energy entrepreneurs, are leading the charge, demanding cost-effective, reliable, resilient, flexible, and sustainable power delivery solutions.
Demands for clean energy are not just to power up individual homes and businesses, but to power electric vehicles (EVs), self-sufficient communities, campuses, industrial sites, and smart integrated grids as well. Utility-scale solar, wind, and battery storage are in early development. Use of solar and wind as energy sources is expanding, and as storage options continue to grow and improve, energy from renewable sources is being bundled and aggregated. It’s a new beginning.
Meanwhile, multiple dynamics are in play in energy markets. Policy decisions, regulatory landscape, rate reform, generation mix, and distributed energy resources (DERs) are all attempting to influence, enable, and support next-generation customer expectations and requirements. Change is underway with a quickening pace. The embodiment of that change is in flux too, in what might be called the “sorting out” phase in the march to the next-generation utility to meet customer demands and expectations.
The traditional utility industry is right in the middle of it all, being pulled along, trying to establish its new legs in a somewhat chaotic “sorting out” environment. Energy markets, policy makers, regulators, entrepreneurs, intervenors, and the utilities themselves all have an interest in determining the shape and nature of the next-generation utility. Sorting through and normalizing different ideas, perspectives and approaches will be challenging, but it will happen. The timing, momentum, and will are there. The industry must be able to reinvent itself and assimilate the new requirements of the stakeholder parties, which will provide justifiable, cost-effective, resilient, and reliable power delivery solutions that are sustainable and flexible. There is no looking back.
And, there is the matter of the grid itself, the operating backbone for power delivery, that is posing many questions for the industry. Can the utility grid accommodate the changes, such as dynamic customer demands and preferences, new and novel solutions, renewables up/down time, and voltage and frequency variations? What will be required to accommodate disparate energy integrations, maintain grid integrity and stability, and move power? Are assets resilient? Are operating systems reliable? How effective are maintenance practices? What are the new system performance requirements? What is required for “grid readiness,” and what does a transition to the next-generation grid look like? How can utilities navigate the changing landscape? These questions need to be answered, and all are being driven by the changing environment.
It is reasonable to assume that, whatever the outcome of the shape and requirements of the next-generation utility might be, mainstay utilities will likely still be perceived as reliable providers but of last resort. The grid will still be a critical component for connectivity and power movement, at least for the foreseeable future. The future grid may be no more than a backbone supporting multiple interconnected microgrids. Or, it could be a hybrid, supporting traditional customer requirements, distributed energy source integration, and decentralized microgrids. It could transition to a specialized grid in whole or in part to accommodate expected electrification demand increases for vehicles and high-efficiency, all-temperature heat pumps. Regardless of outcome, the future grid will be subject to the key underpinnings of asset resiliency, asset reliability, and efficient system operations. Utilities must be prepared for this functionally, organizationally, and procedurally.
WSP USA Power Transmission and Distribution (T&D) has been closely following the disruption in the utility industry and the march toward the next-generation utility. It is not unfamiliar territory given our experience with renewable energy, hydro, generation, and delivery. What is different now, is the emerging pace of change. Changes in energy markets driven by clean energy, customer demands, technological advances, and regulatory reform are leading to some uncertainty on the part of utilities. When that dust settles, a clear direction will emerge.
To prepare, WSP is “leaning in” to the changing utility environment with a sharp focus on what the next-generation utility could look like and what it might take to get there. It’s all about grid readiness and anticipation of what changes are coming and how those changes will transition to the next-generation utility grid.
WSP’s thought leaders and subject matter experts are in place to monitor activities driving change to the industry and are assisting utility clients in understanding, navigating, and preparing for those changes. Program managers, with subject matter experts, assist in baseline assessments of asset inventory and system health to develop comprehensive solutions that support and enable grid resiliency and readiness. Program managers and construction managers are likewise in place to review and assess the effectiveness of operations and maintenance procedures, as well as practices that are critical to operational reliability and readiness. Value engineering of prospective grid readiness solutions is another critical tenant of the review and assessment process that assists clients in project/program justification with the regulator and/or customer advocate. The multidisciplinary engineering team, consisting of personnel from WSP’s T&D practice groups, is fully prepared to provide comprehensive technical solutions and designs to address findings from assessments.
In the end, the grid as we know it will take on a different complexion, and it may consist of multiple, small, interconnected microgrids. Power will still need to move on a resilient, reliable, and flexible grid. System performance will still be front and center. Regulators and customers will still be actively engaged. Now and in the future, utility asset management, system performance, and operations and maintenance, will remain imperatives for customers, third parties, and regulators — regardless of what the grid looks like.
Cost-effective, resilient, and reliable solutions are the required outcome, even though the construct of the next-generation utility is likely to be quite different than today.