The evolution of transmission and distribution (part 1 of 2)
It’s often said that the electrification of American society was the greatest engineering feat of the 20th century. But there’s little if any time to rest on our laurels. We’re now facing one of the most critical challenges of the 21st century: building the power grid of the future. Not only building the grid but also developing the operational skillsets, business processes and regulatory policies to support its success.
Grid modernization requires skill and flexibility
The requirements of the modernized transmission and distribution (T&D) system extend well beyond generating and delivering electricity down the line from point A to point B. Tomorrow’s grid must be much more resilient to withstand:
- Extreme weather
- Physical attacks
- More volatile energy demand
- Changing load shapes
The modern grid must also be more flexible to accommodate two-way power flows and the continual expansion of distributed energy resources. It must enable more choice, empowerment and convenience for customers, many of whom will become prosumers, generating their own power to use or to sell in a transactive marketplace.
That’s no small order.
Summon the flying cars
As I try to put this transformation into useful context, I think of The Jetsons cartoon and the space cars zipping around in all different directions. In some respects, the transition to the power grid of the future is akin to moving from commercial airlines as the primary means of air travel to individually-owned flying cars. How would our centralized air traffic control (ATC) system, managing 5,000 aircraft in 21 zones on pre-determined routes on any given day, adapt to consumers flying their own vehicles? ATC would have to operate on much smaller scales with tremendous increases in volume and efficiency.
Utilities face a similar challenge with the bi-directional, or even omnidirectional flow of electricity. How do you manage the traffic signals, intersections, on- and off-ramps, and the rules of the road for a highly distributed energy marketplace? With so many moving parts, some will have to be seen and managed at a macrolevel, but many components will have to be automated with distributed computing and artificial intelligence – think microgrids, smart meters, distributed energy resources, electric vehicles and storage.
Utilities must learn from other industries
On a less whimsical note, think of the telecom industry, where languishing revenues over the past few years are fueling a digital business transformation and serious reassessment of capital spending levels. While computing power and capabilities of smartphones may have increased a thousand-fold over the last 15 years, telecom providers have found themselves saddled with outdated technology in the back office. They’re now focused on taking advantage of new technology to trim costs, streamline business processes, drive innovation and address new customer needs.
The challenges faced by utilities with their future T&D strategies and plans look similar. Investor-owned utilities in the U.S. are spending more than $100 billion a year on the grid and supporting functions, according to the Edison Electric Institute. And while there have been significant technology updates and improvements made to the grid infrastructure, we’re still a long way from realizing the full consumer, economic and environmental benefits of a digitized grid.
My next post will lay out a path to achieving these benefits — with action items for utilities as well as regulators.