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A Fresh View of Your Renewable Energy Plans and Programs

image credit: Photo by BLM New Mexico

Let’s take a collective pause from responding to and planning around the global pandemic.

Keeping the lights on and everyone safe is a top priority for utilities as businesses try to return to normal.  Utilities also remain committed to supplying reliable, safe, and affordable power as they deal with complex challenges and the many variables and multiple approaches in planning and maintaining the T&D networks.  As one writer puts it:

On the supply side, wind and solar power are reaching immense scale, and new technologies such as green hydrogen are coming into view as coal wanes. Energy storage is just getting started. Legacy resources are finding new roles as renewable integration machines. On the demand side, building and transportation electrification are going mainstream. Behind the scenes, the internet of things and data science and privacy, cybersecurity and customer choices around the reliability, affordability, and sustainability of electricity are creating opportunities and challenges that we can only begin to imagine, from the granular to the global and everywhere in between.”[1] 

Figuring out how to take advantage of these technologies while maintaining a stable and agile network is critically important.  Complicating matters, the following competing interests often create contradicting outcomes and unrealistic timeframes:

  • Politicians and residents pursuing more renewable generation opportunities;
  • Regulators requiring assurance of little to no service interruptions for customers;
  • Business customers appreciating the need for cleaner energy while trying to deal with the associated costs, and competing in a global marketplace;
  • Residential customers wanting cleaner energy but at affordable rates and some level of energy independence; and
  • Utilities and states managing the quality and number of DER (Distributed Energy Resources) service providers operating on the distribution system.

DER Planning and Execution

The challenge then becomes how to manage these interests through strategic DER planning and execution.

Three key areas should be part of any DER plan:

  • Technologies to select and deploy;
  • System Planning to integrate new technologies with old; and
  • Customer-facing messaging and programs to accelerate technology adoption.

When choosing technologies, utilities have to consider a multitude of options and considerations, including the following:

  • Value proposition for the grid;
  • Value proposition for the customer;
  • Interaction with other T&D systems;
  • Maintenance considerations; and
  • Training implications for the utility staff and customers.

For the system planner, developing utility-specific DER models backed by industry data is challenging. Diverse generation characteristics must be fully understood.  Load characteristics and DER impacts on reliable system performance must be fully incorporated.  Adequate “load following” capabilities must be part of any system design.

Other challenges include the following:

  • Replacing existing high carbon-producing generation with more environmentally friendly solutions like wind, solar, and electric storage;
  • Designing distribution systems to support 2-way power flows, including new protection schemes;
  • Enhancing feeder-segment isolation during outages;
  • Creating uniform solution sets that can be applied across distribution systems;
  • Supporting the use of battery storage on sub-transmission and distribution systems;
  • Helping customers optimize their energy use;
  • Promoting and monitoring energy efficiency and demand reduction solutions; and
  • Encouraging end-users and third-party developers to participate in new programs.

For the customer-facing team, critical messaging and adoption programs must portray simplicity, enthusiasm, and value for customers to engage in utility offers. Questions to answer include the following:

  • How to create innovative and easy-to-act-on renewable energy programs for residential customers? Business customers?
  • What are the best ways and places to promote these programs?
  • How is success to be measured and results to be communicated to customers and the team?
  • How to ensure customers understand how to gain the greatest value from new programs and make the right decisions for change?

Accommodating DER in existing T&D systems requires an understanding of changing government regulations and incentive programs (federal, state, local), industry standards, customer expectations, staffing issues, budgets, emergency needs (storms, pandemics), evolving technologies, and day-to-day operations.  All are important to goal setting for the development of a strategic plan. In addition, there has been a great deal of activity in these areas by some early leaders in states such as California, NY, and Massachusetts.  Lessons-learned will save considerable time, pain, and money.  When combined with success stories from consultants, DER initiatives can be jumpstarted, quantified, and measured.   

Distribution System of the Future (DSF)

DSF system planners have a unique challenge incorporating advanced distribution controls in traditional distribution systems; i.e., automation transformation, which is essential to ensuring reasonable rates for all customers. The overriding cost control concern is two-fold: Minimizing stranded investments and effectively controlling capital spend.  This concern is particularly true in regions where energy rates already exceed national averages; i.e., where the cost of energy could become the tipping point for local economies.

Challenges for system planners include the following:

  • Replacing antiquated 4kV systems with more robust 15kV equipment;
  • Coordinating in-line switching to enhance reliability with traditional line fuses and substation breakers/reclosers;
  • More granular feeder-segment isolation during outages;
  • Rapid fault identification and locating to reduce trouble crew times and overall outage time reductions; and
  • Enhanced customer notification of outage status and restoration times.

Concluding Remarks

No one knows more about a specific power system than the responsible utility company.  However, working with independent and knowledgeable consultants to assess the performance of a specific project or the entire system is more important today than ever before.  Why?  Simply put: It’s the easiest and fastest way to secure access to proven and focused industry expertise while adding a third eye to identify enhancements. The use of independent consultants is especially valuable when conducting end-to-end assessments of DER and DSF.  All DER/DSF programs impact engineering design and operation as well as customer perception of the utility, including financials.

Independent assessments add credibility to what can otherwise be perceived as biased results, even if conclusions and recommendations are essentially the same, which can have a direct impact on performance, funding, cost recovery, regulatory acceptance, and safety.  Also, it’s a credible way to quantify management commitment to DER/DSF initiatives by evaluating operating strategies, physical locations, system operation impacts, and financial consequences.

For sure, consultants are not a substitute for utility expertise.  However, when independent assessments are needed, consultants (representing many years of valuable industry experience) can ensure successful and timely completion.  It takes a strong team with a diversified skill set to identify potential issues and determine needed system enhancements that could result from DER/DSF initiatives.

- - - - -

Bob Grant has more than 48 years’ experience in the electric and gas industry, with an extensive background in thermal storage, energy efficiency, demand response, system operations, and independent management audits.  bobg.rivercg@gmail.com

George Fandos has over 35 years’ consulting and operating experience in the electric and gas industry, with an extensive background in customer outage communication, customer experience management, technology design, and governance.  geofandos@gmail.com

Ron Willoughby has more than 45 years’ experience in the electric power industry, with an extensive background in T&D planning & analysis, grid modernization, DER integration, energy storage, and engineering management.  willoughbyconsulting@gmail.com

 


[1] Lincoln Blevans, Utilities Are the New Cool

George Fandos's picture

Thank George for the Post!

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Discussions

Bob Nikon's picture
Bob Nikon on Apr 29, 2020 1:42 am GMT

Thanks for the post George but so much you can twist around these known renewables to be the energy we can count on. They still can not render the compatible energy we need. Storage idea will not work efficiently either. That is the real reason that we still depend mainly on fossil fuels. Not the ones that you have mentioned. If we go on this route things will go on as what we see now, nothing will change generation after generation untill these resources are depleted. That is the end of the road. Of course, it is a long road but some of us will get there for sure. 

Isn't it time to have a look at some new perspective working with the power of Mother Nature. Not her stuff and neither somethings that're out of her control. Somethings that belong solely to her. As the result, a superfluous, clean, free and endless energy for everyone. Anyone would like to discuss with me on this paranormal creations? 

 

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