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SEPA Blog: Orchestrating a Path to the Grid of Tomorrow

Dense rows of residential housing with rooftop solar.

Imagine a symphony orchestra preparing for a performance. The musicians tune their instruments, review the piece they’ve rehearsed many times, and focus closely on the conductor. The conductor is there to unify the orchestra, set the tempo, and shape the sound into a harmonious whole.

Just as they are about to begin, a dozen new members enter the stage and take positions within the ensemble. They each have instruments and well-practiced abilities, but they have not rehearsed together, nor are they sure when they will be called upon to play. The conductor is aware of their presence, but is unable to synchronize their output with the group. The orchestra’s performance quickly tumbles into dissonance and instability, leading to a mess.

Effectively managing a complex power grid is not unlike staging a symphonic performance. Utilities must have awareness of and control over a multitude of disparate network elements, each with capabilities, strengths, and tendencies. This is why utility coordination across planning, operations, and customer programs functions is critically important.

This complexity, combined with the rapid pace of change in the grid, means that utilities are at risk of investing in and building strategies using long-term forecasts that are divorced from the day-to-day realities faced by operations and the technology projections of innovation groups.

Managing Many Moving Parts

Planning and operations groups in every utility are being challenged to do more with less, as the industry grapples with the transition from a centralized grid with one-way power flow to a more dynamic, distributed grid with an increasingly diverse portfolio of energy assets and loads.

To be effective in their roles, these teams need tools and resources that more closely integrate planning with operations, while maintaining alignment with customer program groups who are developing incentives and opportunities to increase engagement. They also need to collaborate with innovation and smart-grid teams who are working to push past pilots into full-scale front-of-meter (FTM) and behind-the-meter (BTM) microgrids, distributed energy resource (DERS), and distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) deployments.

Across their businesses, utilities need tools that automate DER optimization and real-time operational management at a microsecond level to overcome intermittency, optimize DERs and grid flows, and support higher renewable and electric vehicle (EV) adoption. They are also tasked with creating better day-ahead forecasting built on operations data, and providing data that can be used for better long-term planning, program design, and investment decisions. These intelligent and automated tools are needed to help remove the burden of operations and planning complexity from human operators and planning engineers, and to position utilities for success in meeting their carbon reduction goals.

Integrated autonomous grid controls

Seeking Solutions

SEPA recently partnered with PXiSE Energy Solutions, a leading grid controls technology company, to host an interactive, virtual Solutions Lab workshop where utility peers discussed these challenges and identified potential solutions. The workshop, titled “Integrating and Managing Renewables, Electric Vehicles, and Storage on an Electric Grid,” featured a fictitious utility case study with real-world examples of the technical, operational, and business challenges posed by DER integration, policy goals, and legacy systems.

Participants were assigned to groups to focus on three areas – distribution operations, distribution design, and distribution planning. Each group tackled real-world problems from the case. For example, how should the utility deal with challenges managing voltage and thermal constraints at a distribution substation due to power flows driven by overproduction of solar energy during the day and high loads caused by charging electric buses and vehicles during the evening?

Here are the five biggest takeaways from Solution Lab participants:

  1. Begin with a holistic approach. Each siloed team – planning, operations, and design – functioned with incomplete information, and would have benefitted from a more holistic approach to control system design, operations, and planning. Attendees cited the benefits of developing a DER roadmap as an important first step in gaining organizational momentum for and input towards a DERMS solution across their teams.
  2. Set organizational goals. The case highlighted the balancing act facing utilities when planning for EV loads, thinking about grid resilience, and looking to offer customer storage and solar with DER controls capabilities. The first step is determining operational goals for control of DER assets and a more renewable and resilient grid. This will help to frame the planning needs. Then bring together the design, innovation, planning, and operations departments to ensure a joint understanding of current and future needs.
  3. Leverage data. Each breakout group in the Solution Lab identified real-time data on system operations and DER behavior within their grid as a requirement for successful DER integration. The future two-way dynamic grid requires an intelligent control system to predict supply and demand, and to detect sudden abnormal conditions. Mitigating the less predictable supply, demand, multi-directional network flow, and voltage fluctuation is critical to maintaining service reliability.
  4. Look beyond department silos. Solution Lab teams also identified the need to consider project finance, phased delivery, policy implications, vendors, and the company’s future growth. This all takes time, so now is the time to dive in and get started.
  5. Don’t go it alone. Look to other utility case studies and trusted vendors to help tackle these issues. Check out the SEPA DERMS Requirements Guidebook Version 2.0, which offers a helpful starting point for utilities or system developers interested in learning about a DERMS. Consider joining a SEPA Working Group to continue the conversation, seek assistance, and share best practices.

Utility Examples

SEPA members continue to lead the industry in grid modernization, resilience, and DER integration projects. For example, Portland General Electric has developed a public-private partnership with the City of Beaverton to provide a microgrid that, when in grid-connected mode, provides ancillary services such as voltage and frequency support and can operate for up to 21 days in island mode. SEPA members such as SDG&E, Xcel, and many more are demonstrating new capabilities with microgrid and DER integration projects both in-front-of and behind-the-meter. These projects demonstrate how utilities can leverage DER integration to create new value for customers and shareholders and enable a more automated, renewable, and distributed grid of the future, and are featured in this Utility Microgrid Guidehouse white paper.

Moving Forward Together

Energy resources are changing. The grid is evolving more rapidly now than ever. The energy network of tomorrow will be decentralized, carbon free, and digitized. To get there, utility teams are finding new ways to collaborate and work together to enable a holistic approach to grid management. Only in this way can the world transition to a future that benefits from intelligent, sustainable energy resources to meet the world’s complex energy needs efficiently and reliably.

“We need to make the grid smarter and cleaner. This is the great challenge of our time. The power industry isn’t known for being on the forefront of technology adoption, but the transition away from a century-old, hardware-dependent analog grid toward a modern software-based digital grid is not just desirable but essential,” says Patrick Lee, CEO of PXiSE.

Now is the time to act and lead the industry forward. Visionary utilities in the U.S. and around the world are taking action, deploying advanced grid control technologies that are scalable to adapt to ever-changing demand. By unifying grid assets in a coordinated fashion, they’re also able to add flexibility and reinforce resilience at a time when energy security has become a fundamental concern.

Just as the order and structure in musical composition serves to arrange the order and structure of players performing in an orchestra, led by a conductor who ensures proper rhythmic flow, so too does a decentralized grid need a unifying presence to ensure that its diverse and dynamic assets are coordinated and harmonized.

By Sandra Dedic and Jose Carranza, PXiSE Energy Solutions