Strength in numbers: Solving industry issues will take collaboration
Utility folk have a long history of helping each other out. When Katrina’s blow downed power lines throughout the Gulf Coast, some 46,000 restoration workers traveled to the area and helped local utilities get the power back on.
This esprit de corps will be a crucial element in addressing the biggest challenges our industry faces, as most of these challenges go beyond the walls and control rooms of utilities themselves. Here’s a look at three big issues ahead.
1. Spreading the smarts and control around
Some electric utility pros may be wringing their hands over potential loss of revenue but, like it or not, distributed energy resources (DER) are coming onto the grid in droves. With them, we’ll need increasingly decentralized intelligence and control at the grid edge, and we’ll need it soon.
Through the first half of 2015, some 40 percent of all new electric generating capacity was solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM research. Battery energy storage is taking off, too. Researchers at HIS project the energy storage market will grow from 0.34 gigawatts installed in 2013 to 6 gigawatts installed in 2017 and more than 40 gigawatts installed annually by 2022.
Utilities in areas with 10 percent or more of their customers sporting rooftop solar already know some of the reliability issues that are cropping up. Frequency variance and voltage fluctuations are key reasons why the California Public Utilities Commission revised the state’s electric interconnection tariff to mandate smart inverters on many solar installations. With smart inverters on the line, grid operators will have localized support for voltage sags and spikes, frequency problems and power requirements.
Meanwhile, behind-the-meter generation, storage and smart inverters aren’t the only devices out at the grid edge. Utilities still have their own sensors, regulators, capacitors and other equipment on the line. How will we get all these devices to work together when grid conditions – such as sudden cloud cover that drops PV output dramatically – impacts voltage and, potentially, grid reliability?
Duke Energy, working its original six-member Coalition of the Willing, applied principles from industrial internet technologies to the smart grid and came up with a framework for an open field message bus (OpenFMB) with computing power and the ability to connect to grid-edge devices. Duke handed off the framework to the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, an impartial industry consortium that is now developing use cases and security management practices around this idea to help utilities put intelligence and control closer to the DER that they’ll need to assimilate into their grids.
OpenFMB is part of SGIP’s EnergyIoT initiative to bring the Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced interoperability to the power grid. The technology behind OpenFMB offers one way to facilitate distributed computing node and control algorithms that allow grid-edge devices to make operational decisions locally and not be so reliant on centralized control from the utility. The proliferation of distributed energy resources is making such distributed intelligence and control a necessity.
2. Supporting solar
Despite the potential for reliability disruption that variable generation sources like solar energy bring, we in the utility industry still must pursue them. We’ll need them to curb greenhouse gasses, meet Clean Power Plan mandates and serve growing consumer demand for green energy. That means it will serve us in the long run to make these investments more bankable so that investors and insurers can back solar projects big and small.