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Grid Reliability: A Trend Built on Trends

image credit: © Phuttaphat Tipsana | Dreamstime.com

This item is part of the Predictions & Trends - Special Issue - 01/2020, click here for more

The power industry and electrical grid are at a critical tipping point. Change is not only wanted, but it is needed to keep existing systems working at the level of performance necessary for daily life. With these changes come plenty of trends and predictions for the coming year, the largest of those trends being improved grid reliability. As the industry has learned over the last 10 years, reliability improvements cover a wide range of initiatives and motivators, which is why this general trend is only possible because of three supporting trends that will continue to grow in 2020:

  • A focus on utility distribution systems
  • Undergrounding power lines
  • Momentary outages and the end customer experience

Increased focus on utility distribution systems.

We are moving into the age of distribution systems, and utilities will be allocating more funding to modernize the grid at this level. This, in turn, will improve grid reliability.

Over the last five years, the Edison Electric Institute has found utility spending in the United States grew from $20 billion to $40 billion. As we see a change in the location of generation on the grid, with much of it moving to the distribution grid in the form of distributed energy resources (DERs) and other renewable generation sources, all signs point to a future where the distribution system and power generation will be one and the same.

Moving forward, we will see utilities adjusting their grid-investment spending to put a greater focus on distribution improvements. A result of this shift will be exponential reliability improvements as conventional and outdated technology is replaced with cutting-edge, intelligent solutions. Distribution systems have the greatest opportunity for reliability improvements if given the proper attention.

Undergrounding power lines

With storms and wildfires becoming more destructive around the world, many utilities are looking at undergrounding their distribution systems for an additional level of protection. In 2019, Florida’s public utility commission approved a new tariff to fund utility undergrounding efforts. This will limit line and pole damage caused by storms and make it much easier to restore power to customers following a disaster. 2020 kicks off a 10-year utility plan for Florida, and we should anticipate other states will follow suit.

Undergrounding has also become a viable option for wildfire-prone areas. After seeing the damage fires have caused to overhead systems in recent history, there is a big push to move those at-risk systems underground. This change will better protect grid systems and limit continued fire risks. In 2020, we will see utilities that are still recovering from fire damage lean toward making this change to better protect their investments, increase customer safety, and improve their power delivery and reliability.

Momentary outages and customer experiences

Nearly all the utility performance metrics being used today were developed in the 1970s. At their inception, an outage of five minutes or less was perfectly acceptable. For the last decade, this has not been the case. The customers of electric utilities will not tolerate outages of any length, especially on “blue-sky” days.

Momentary outages (an outage lasting five minutes of less) have become a hot topic in the industry, and this trend will continue in 2020. Utilities are paying more attention to the customer experience, and that means putting a greater focus and larger investments in improving grid reliability at the very end of the grid to tackle momentary outages.

Many utilities are looking at new performance metrics, such as CEMI (Customers Experiencing Multiple Interruptions) and CEMM (Customers Experiencing Multiple Momentaries), to target trouble spots on the grid where momentary outages are frequent. Putting more attention on improving reliability at the end of the grid makes for happier customers, and happy customers are less likely to look for alternative power suppliers. Utilities that have already made changes along these lines are seeing increased customer satisfaction across their service territories, and more utilities around the country are expected to follow their lead.

2020 will certainly be a year of significant change for the electric grid, and reliability will be a main point of discussion. As we review trends that will drive grid changes, it’s important to realize achieving the industry’s goal of improved reliability will only be met through the impact of other supporting trends.   

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 29, 2020 1:32 pm GMT

In 2019, Florida’s public utility commission approved a new tariff to fund utility undergrounding efforts. This will limit line and pole damage caused by storms and make it much easier to restore power to customers following a disaster. 2020 kicks off a 10-year utility plan for Florida, and we should anticipate other states will follow suit.

This always interests me because the issue of hurricanes and their potential impact on the grid in Florida is not a new one. My understanding had been that despite the hassle, risk, and cost of needing to repair lines after major storms, the costs could actually be greater in undergrounding-- both as initially undergrounding them and then also in the regular maintenance of those lines then becoming more costly. Is that not the case? And my other question is what changed from a few decades ago to now to make undergrounding the lines in FL now make sense?

Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Feb 2, 2020 12:33 pm GMT

Hi Matt. Concerning your question about what changed from a few decades ago to now to make undergrounding the lines in FL now make sense?

I think the development of underground cables and insulation's materials and  techniques increased the applied voltage > 400 KV which in turn increase the current carrying capacity of cables . This lead to be cost effective option. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 3, 2020 1:39 pm GMT

That's a fair point, Dr. Khashab-- the technology has obviously improved since the days when the T&D wires were installed and indeed that could be what flips the script

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