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Going All In On Grid Infrastructure Innovation

Posted to SensorSuite in the Digital Utility Group
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Glen Spry's picture
CEO & President sensorsuite

Glen Spry. CEO and President at SensorSuite, Inc - A former energy utility executive with extensive knowledge of Asia Pacific, European, and North American energy markets, Glen is now applying...

  • Member since 2021
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  • Aug 12, 2021 2:45 pm GMT
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I see your outages and your aged infrastructure, and I raise you the 30 years of extreme climate events...

If there is one thing the last 18 months or so has taught us it's that what you once thought was “normal” can be disrupted in an instant. Whether it was the ability to jump on a plane and fly anywhere in the world or simply to pop over to a friend’s house for coffee, so many of our old “normals'' evaporated overnight thanks to a virus. The corresponding impacts of the pandemic on our energy systems became evident quite quickly as well. I recall one announcement literally 8 weeks after the pandemic began from here in Ontario that “every day was now a Saturday '' in terms of provincial demand curves. 

So a post pandemic return to more “normal” work/life habits will also bring an increase in electricity demand.  Couple this with broader climate trends like record setting heat waves that have eclipsed historical records for two consecutive years are not going away, and it’s clear to see that the slow moving juggernaut that is climate change  will have a very real impact on grid reliability and resilience. 

I recently read an article that stated there has been a 67% increase in power outages in the US since 2000.  An interesting subset to that stat is that up until 2012 extreme climate events were the direct cause of 87% of all grid outages affecting 50,000 or more customers. Sobering to say the least. Looking a bit deeper into this statistic it would be fair to ask a couple of follow up questions.  “Is it the climate event frequency and severity that’s increasing outages?” or “is it the age and condition of the grid?” influencing the grid's ability to tolerate these events that’s causing the increase. As a betting man I would be willing to wager that it’s an ugly combination of the two. And to be honest it doesn’t really matter.  It won't matter to the Californian who is about to enter another fire season with the threat of Public Safety Power Shutdowns still fresh in the memory from last year, or the Texan still reeling from the fall out of this year's Valentines Day Polar Vortex “wobble”. 

The reason I am highlighting the above is because none of it is a surprise. All of the events I have mentioned are regular events, albeit appearing to be more severe and more frequent. The state of grid infrastructure is no surprise either, the vast majority of it has been in service for 50+ years and anyone who has owned a car knows, the older it is the more expensive it is to fix and the more often it breaks. 

When something happens to us suddenly, out of the blue we are confronted with a stark realisation of its magnitude/impact. But the dumpster fire on the back of a slow moving train wreck that is aging infrastructure mixed up in an existential climate threat can slip by under the radar on account of it being our lived normal for so long. In an instant our lives and grids changed with COVID.  The way we live, work and play reduced overall demand by some 6-7% in a matter of weeks but will no doubt bounce back faster and stronger as markets open up and make up for lost time (and profits...). The BIG issue we need to come together to solve is that in terms of our grids ability to deliver energy reliably. The pandemic is a pothole on the energy transition interstate highway and as Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character said in the movie The Perfect Storm, “You're heading right for the middle of the monster”.

The truly heartening fact to know is that EVERY tool we need to combat this reality is at our fingertips.   To decarbonise our grids we need a bunch of renewables – check, a tonne of storage – check (ish – it's not here yet but by the end of the 2020’s there will bevy of battery storage deployed).   To firm up our grids we need demand flexibility – and not behavioral demand response (DR).  I mean true, automated, responsive technological DR - EEGR Buildings, Bi-directional EV charging, Grid connected generation and storage to name a few. All of this technology is market tested, market proven and has the ability to scale incredibly fast. 

So, if we know “beyond reasonable doubt” that our grid's ability to withstand increasingly more volatile weather events is, at best, compromised, what's stopping us?!?! The answer is nothing.. This decade FERC2222 alone will spawn an armada of technology solutions capable of supporting the grid as it transitions away from its analog roots all while taking a beating from the elements. 

The 2020’s will test our grids like never before.  If we continue to throw the old tools at the problem we will continue to see the same outcomes. It is  disheartening to read, just this morning, that some 13 states are attempting to ban DR aggregators from their markets. However, I am optimistic that FERC 2222 will bring more than enough resources to market. SensorSuite, like many others, are focused on bringing cost effective, innovative solutions capable of reducing the impacts of an increasingly volatile climate. Let’s come together as an industry and make a  “collective bet” on infrastructure innovation to keep our beer cold and showers hot regardless while driving carbon reduction to preserve our beautiful planet. 
 

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