It’s All About the Value of the Network: ComEd Gears Up for a Distributed Energy Boom
In a world of networks — from social media to car sharing to online shopping — it’s difficult to see how the electrical grid network will lose value in future. That’s according to Shay Bahramirad, the director of smart grid and technology at Commonwealth Edison.
How the grid operates will change. But, if anything, the value of the grid network will only increase.
“The future is all about networks,” said Bahramirad, in an interview at GTM’s Grid Edge World Forum last week.
“I personally do not agree with the idea that there is a utility death spiral because of these networks. I see our work being about more connectivity,” she said. “Consider Airbnb, where people share their homes with strangers. […] People date through the internet and connect through Facebook. How do you see that, in a world of connectivity, customers will generate energy behind-the-meter in their homes or industrial parks off the grid on their own? I don’t see that silo ever happening, because it’s against the social reality of our lives these days.”
The grid is a network that consumers have already invested billions of dollars into, she said. It is also a network of networks that can be utilized in different ways. There’s the physical network of poles and cables; the communications network, including AMI infrastructure; and the social platform where the utility interacts with every single customer in its service territory. These platforms can be leveraged to produce new services for other customers and for the utility itself.
ComEd is working on a number of fronts to ensure that it is prepared to serve changing customer needs and confront the technical challenges of operating an increasingly sophisticated grid system.
Last year, ComEd launched an LED streetlight pilot with Silver Spring Networks that links the lights to ComEd’s wireless network, enabling two-way communication. This spring, the utility announced it plans to expand the project by replacing nearly 18,000 ComEd-owned streetlights with new smart-ready LED streetlights across the state of Illinois. ComEd also plans to expand a smart water meter pilot in partnership with Illinois American Water.
In addition, the Illinois-based utility has partnered with the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and several universities to stay on the forefront of developments at the grid edge, including the rollout of a new advanced distribution management system. ComEd has also partnered with the incubator Energy Foundry to forge relationships with entrepreneurs and startups. At the same time, the utility is developing talent retention and analytics training programs to ensure it maintains a strong and well-equipped workforce.
All of these initiatives are part of a broader plan to upgrade the grid system and drive more distributed energy resource (DER) adoption in the state of Illinois, said Bahramirad.
“We try to be proactively looking into what we have to do to design the system and what type of control and data management we need to put in place to operate the system reliably and safety, while adopting more and more DERs,” she said.
Data-driven analysis to accommodate DERs
Bahramirad said that she currently has three separate teams examining what the future of the distribution system should look like for ComEd.
Roughly 18 months ago, ComEd engineers completed a comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the utility’s grid system with input from local and national stakeholders, analyzing everything from substation vulnerability to power quality to the health of various utility assets in 1-mile squares across ComEd’s territory. In a hosting capacity analysis, ComEd ran different scenarios on distribution feeders to understand how much distributed generation each feeder could accommodate without violating voltage standards. These assessments underpin ComEd’s ongoing work at the grid edge and are informing related policy.
Earlier this year, ComEd introduced comprehensive legislation with its parent company Exelon intended to enhance the grid further and drive the adoption of clean energy technologies. The utilities launched the Next Generation Energy Plan (SB 1585) in May after a previous version of the bill failed to win support. The new bill contains a controversial provision providing assistance to Exelon’s struggling nuclear power plants, but includes a number of other alternative energy measures that the utilities hope will help it pass.
There are three main components of the new bill that would help to jump-start the Illinois DER market: a doubling of energy-efficiency programs, creating roughly $4.1 billion in energy savings for customers, including $650 million in efficiency savings for low-income customers; a smart inverter rebate and more than $140 million per year in new funding for solar development; as well as strengthening and expanding the state’s renewable portfolio standard.