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2022 Trends in Power: 4 Ways Technology Will Reshape the Electric Utility Industry

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Venkat Bahl's picture
Chief Revenue Officer and SVP of Customer operations Sentient Energy

Venkat Bahl joined Sentient Energy in 2016 as Vice President of Sales. Prior to joining Sentient, Venkat was the sales leader for wireless technologies at Emerson Process Management, a Fortune...

  • Member since 2021
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  • Jan 25, 2022
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2022-01 - Power Industry 2022 Trends & Predictions, click here for more

2021 was a difficult year for US electric utilities. In certain regions, storms and safety incidents proved to be a frequent and serious problem for the nation's distribution grid. While 2022 will undoubtedly hold power delivery challenges, it will also present opportunities to address them.  

The grid will certainly be subjected to much greater pressures in the coming year. Extreme weather and natural disasters will continue to stress the grid, and the ever-growing adoption of electric vehicles and rooftop solar will pose new demand and bi-directional power flow challenges. 

These developments will push the United States’ aging electric power infrastructure to its limits. In response, a significant number of projects have been launched to modernize the distribution grid and ensure a safe and high-quality service for US utilities. Based on the projects and plans I've witnessed with our utility customers and the industry as a whole, I anticipate four key trends will define the evolution of the US power grid in 2022. 

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1. Data analytics will assist utilities in developing greater precision and control over grid operations  

The rate of change impacting the utility industry, and in particular the distribution grid is unprecedented.  Understanding, the ability to react, and now the ability to predict what is going on in their grids is no longer a luxury, nice to have, but is now a must have.  Running to failure is not an option, as the impact of failure can and will be much more pronounced. Utilities will place a priority on accessing and using real-time data from substation to grid edge in the coming year. Today's grid modernization efforts are hampered by information that is lacking, not in relevant time, or worse yet, outdated. To improve reliability, resilience, and efficiency, they will look to augment and better use historic data for improved operations decisions. Real time data and predictive modeling will enable utilities to be more proactive and responsive, lowering costs and successfully integrating distributed energy resources and EVs into the distribution grid. Data on faults and disturbances, load monitoring, and demand patterns are a few examples of information that allows utilities to address today's grid challenges and prepare for tomorrow's power delivery needs. 

2. Power generation at the edge through solar and wind, combined with traditional generation, will require greater monitoring and control.   

Renewable energy, distributed energy and electric vehicles cause spikes in demand and potentially bi-directional power flow. As such, grid edges must be more visible and precisely managed by operators. But renewable energy and EVs at the edge were not accounted for in original US distribution grid plans when most of the grid was constructed. A staggering majority of about 70% of the distribution grid is 25 to 75 years old.  

In 2020, the number of grid-connected rooftop solar systems increased by 19% with no slowdown in sight. Demand for sustainable energy is expected to drive double-digit increases in the sector through 2023 according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In addition to rooftop solar, many innovative firms are bringing rooftop wind turbines to the network. These new energy sources at the edge, which can affect stability and volte quality, necessitate bi-directional power flow on the grid, which can impact stability and power quality. As with rooftop solar and wind turbines, the number of light-duty electric cars in the United States is projected to increase to 31% by 2050, totaling 672 million vehicles in the United States. Demand for electricity at the edge is already rising and will continue to do so due to growing EV charging demand and the increasing numbers of utility customers working from home. Until it does not.  With upcoming vehicle to grid energy flow, in conjunction with roof top solar, the need to understand, stabilize, and protect the grid and its users will become a primary concern.  

Distributed energy resources, EV adoption, and remote work will all contribute to a heightened focus on reliable, efficient grid operations in 2022. Accurate, real-time visibility along with consistent power quality and. peak demand management will be needed for power delivery that efficiently keeps the lights on for customers while helping reduce costs and wear on aging distribution assets. 

3. Multi-layered security will safeguard against threats from bad actors.  

As the power sector becomes increasingly data-driven, it becomes more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important in virtually every sector of the economy. This is especially true for energy providers as they rely more on data to function reliably and efficiently. Utility industry technologists, like many other sectors of the economy, are developing more sophisticated multi-layered security solutions for the sector. Security is divided into three categories:  

  1. Trusted access to control systems provides assurance that only authorized users and devices can send, analyze, or access information and systems. 
  1. Encryption prevents data from being intercepted by anybody other than intended recipients and systems during transit. It also ensures that no bad actors can gain access to data or communications. 
  1. The importance of privacy has grown in grid security. Electricity use patterns are important indicators of consumer and business behaviors because the grid incorporates smart metering and edge control. If accessed, malicious actors may discover when someone is at home, at work, or away from town through drone monitoring; this data can be misused to target individuals who are not suspects. 

4. A renewed focus will be placed on reskilling the energy workforce  

The reskilling of the electric utility industry workforce (both existing employees and new hires) will surface as a top concern in 2022.  

What was once a physical and systems engineering field has evolved to be a data-driven, highly technical environment where data informs decisions at every level of the industry from the central operations control center to the edge line technician. With 25% of industry employees aged 55-65, many of these employees are being reskilled and learning new data-centric approaches. In tandem, utilities are in the process of hiring the next generation of industry members, many of whom are tech-savvy Millennials or younger (a segment that represents 50% of the US population according to the US Census.) These digitally connected younger employees will work alongside older team members and help the workforce evolve. 

Moreover, to operate in a data-driven world, utilities will employ more data scientists, analysts, and digital technicians.  Add on the impact of historically large investments being made into the electric utility space, and the demand for skilled, experienced, and adaptable resources will drive a massive resource crunch in 2022. 

There has never been a more dynamic or fascinating time in the utility business. Data and analytics, like never before, are essential for the country's power grid modernization. Utilities will be able to monitor and control the grid more efficiently, they will also have a deeper understanding of their customers' needs. As energy is traded in a real-time market, it becomes even more critical for utilities to make informed decisions about power delivery 24/7 – 365 days a year. Data-driven insights will allow them to become smarter, faster, and more agile in their decision-making. 

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Jaime Crawford's picture
Jaime Crawford on Jan 27, 2022

Great piece Venkat.  I'd like to add that maps and location data are a critical addtion to data analytics, monitoring power generation, and arming the next generation of workers with robust tools and data. 

Varun Perumalla's picture
Varun Perumalla on Feb 1, 2022

Very nice article Mr. Venkat Bahl, especially reskilling is such an important threat to the industry. Many millennials and young graduates are not very interested in coming into utility industry because of low salaries in utilities compared to other industries such as technology companies and outdated tech stack. How do we attract new people to come into this industry and how do we re-shape existing work force are two important factors. 

 

Gone those days were network modeling done manually, with newest technologies such as RDF/XML using Common Information Model (CIM) has replaced all legacy network modeling practices. I am sure there are thousands of such use cases in our industry. Getting upto speed with newer tech stack is important for existing workforce to be competitive in the industry.

Russ Hissom's picture
Russ Hissom on Feb 1, 2022

Great article, Venkat! It's an exciting time in the business.

 

I've read about the use of blockchain when it comes to DER transactions and its potential use in electric vehicle charging. Have you seen uses like that in your experience?

Leo St. Hilaire's picture
Leo St. Hilaire on Feb 3, 2022

Great read Vankat. I definitely agree that there will be some serious need to reskill workforce over the next few years with addition of AI, blockchain and other technologies. 

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