Utilities Drive Emerging Technology and Grid Innovations

Last month we began our blog series with the question: “What will the future of the energy landscape look like?” We explored creative solutions coming from the world of technology and third-party entrants to the energy/utility sector. This month we will examine the innovations of several utilities that are test-driving new equipment and strategies.

Emerging utility responses

Utilities and regulators are rethinking their approach to the distribution of electricity as well as regulatory constructs and business models. The electric distribution grid is undergoing a transition driven by several factors that have been converging rapidly in the last several years: the need to accommodate an increasing amount of renewables; concerns over volatile weather and the potential impacts of destructive storms; the need to address cybersecurity; and expectations of end users that are far different than the expectations of previous generations. Aging infrastructure and the availability of new technologies that provide better and more timely, granular information mean that infrastructure upgrades are unlikely to be the replacement of like with like.

Stakeholders must address these challenges in a way that ensures continued reliability of electricity, security of the system and resiliency in the face of increasingly severe weather and new cyber risks.

NYSEG ‘Energy Smart Community’ pilot

Since 2014, the New York Public Service Commission has been conducting the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding, which is designed to promote more efficient use of energy, deeper penetration of renewables and wider deployment of distributed energy resources (DERs), as well as to enhance customer engagement through markets and other strategies. As part of REV, New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG), a subsidiary of Avangrid, is conducting an Energy Smart Community pilot in Tompkins County, New York, which includes Ithaca and its environs. In this pilot, NYSEG will focus on planning, grid operations and market facilitation as a way of testing the potential of developing technologies and systems to deliver new smart and flexible grid functionality for utilities.

DER interconnection

As DERs proliferate, utility planning must transform. In the Energy Smart Community (ESC) pilot, NYSEG will implement integrated system planning that will account for customer engagement in load forecasting, calculate the amount of DERs that can be accommodated without system upgrades and provide information to DER developers and governments to enable third‑party solutions and alternatives to traditional distribution system investments.

Grid operations

The ESC pilot will test new tools for grid operations in a world in which the distribution grid must be much more flexible, integrate more renewables and accommodate bidirectional energy and communications flows. NYSEG will create and implement the beginnings of an Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) that will incorporate distribution power flow, voltage optimization, demand response, DER management systems, fault location and isolation, and service restoration. In combination with demand‑side management tools, the ADMS will also enable DER visibility, and control and support DER transactions.

Grid automation

Far‑reaching distribution automation is another critical element of the pilot. NYSEG will automate all feeder breakers, voltage regulation devices, reclosers, tie switches and sectionalizing switches. Smart meters will interface with smart inverters as part of voltage optimization.

Motivating changes in customer behavior

NYSEG has installed advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and will use the area as a test bed to gauge customer response to time‑varying rates and other new rate designs. AMI data will also be paired with customer research to design effective customer marketing and outreach initiatives.

Successful system upgrades demonstrate industry progress

Individual pieces of this process also have been undertaken successfully by utilities outside of specific regulatory proceedings. Florida Power and Light (FPL), a subsidiary of NextEra, is an example of a utility that has made significant upgrades to its software and hardware. Building on its implementation of smart grid projects, FPL has installed AMI, distribution automation, and advanced monitoring on its transmission system. The company continues to move forward with efforts that include wireless communications, an energy dashboard for customers and new software and automation technologies that detect and prevent problems before they become outages. Much of the conversation around current innovations in the energy sector concerns carbon reduction, renewables and energy storage. What we hear less about are the dramatic improvements in reliability and resiliency that utilities like FPL have achieved through the deployment and successful operation of advanced technologies and analytics.

What next?

Utilities are currently experimenting with designs that will lead to a robust, modernized energy grid that incorporates reliability, resiliency, security and renewables. Once the initial projects are complete, new questions will emerge. Which models are effective? How can they be tailored to deliver a variety of services that meet the needs of different areas of the country?

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