While the basic physics of distributing electrons over power lines has not changed, everything else about the business of power delivery is evolving in ways that early pioneers like Thomas Edison or Samuel Insull could never have envisioned.
Residential and commercial power consumers now have options like never before with rooftop solar panels, battery storage or microturbines. Larger institutional users like hospitals, universities and military bases are building their own power generation facilities supported by microgrid distribution systems that can allow them to “island” off the larger grid and continue operating in the event of an outage. Electric vehicles are becoming so commonplace, utilities are planning for the day when they actually become a net source of power rather than consumer. And with costs of renewable technologies dropping dramatically, utility-scale solar and wind installations are now competitive with many sources of conventional thermal generation, with new projects are being announced constantly.
Even with all these changes, consumers still have zero tolerance for outages or power disruptions. Near-perfect reliability is still a must for utilities and other grid operators. Not only that, consumers still demand affordable rates.
Utilities today face unprecedented challenges and must quickly evolve beyond the traditional “fix-it-when-it-breaks” strategy for maintaining the grid. Though utilities should be praised as heroes for maintaining near-perfect reliability in an era of limited and declining budgets, that era is drawing to a close. A new paradigm is required. Grid operators must shift from a focus on failing assets to a holistic view and plan for the upgrades needed to meet emerging needs, opportunities and technologies.
A Better Approach
The power industry today must move quickly toward a holistic approach to decision-making and capital planning that replaces the traditional “break-fix” mentality. We need more efficient, effective ways to identify problem areas and risk hot spots, dedicating capital to address problems before they actually result in service disruptions. We must find comprehensive, sustainable solutions to improving grid performance.
Under traditional system planning methods, utilities typically focused on one issue at a time. Similar to a tree with many branches, the distribution system is a circuit with many lines branching off from the main high-voltage trunk. Under traditional planning, the circuit’s voltage would be studied in isolation with decisions on adding or upgrading a conductor or placing a voltage regulation device made on a single circuit with no thought to the larger picture.
Holistic distribution planning begins with the big picture. Instead of studying a single voltage issue, a holistic planning strategy calls for examining everything from sub-circuit (and maybe surrounding circuits) device reliability data and forecasted equipment failure risk, to the operational waste associated with non-value-added truck dispatches.
An analysis of reliability data might find, for example, that a certain section of the system also had a history of vegetation events. While a new conductor would significantly increase the line’s capacity and improve voltage, it would do nothing to prevent a tree branch from later falling on the line. A cost analysis might even find that the marginal cost of adding tree-trimming to a project would be small, considering trucks were already rolling to mitigate recurring issues.
Big-picture assessments are particularly valuable when working with significantly outdated design and aged assets, which is often the case for many systems. By taking a step back, planners can assess reliability on a system level and prioritize investment in solutions that will have the greatest impact on system performance and reliability. This allows planners to focus attention on areas of the system with the greatest need, specifying investments that solve a multitude of problems, not just a single problem. This approach balances system performance, cost and risk for increased stakeholder value.
It Starts with Data
It goes without saying that a leap forward in planning approach will require regular analysis of everything from load flows, reliability and risk reduction, to operational efficiency, standards noncompliance and total life cycle cost. It requires significant high-quality asset and system data, which often is unavailable.
To remove this roadblock, we have developed a datacentric planning architecture and methodology that allows data to be routed from multiple sources into a dedicated planning database. This coalesced data allows all characteristics of a system or subsystem to be considered, helping planners develop solutions that address all issues related to a section of the system in a single project that nearly always proves to be more cost-effective. With this approach, utilities get the biggest bang for their buck.
For example, utility planners can forecast circuit changes or other system alterations when a large solar PV system is installed by a customer. Similarly, planners can draw on the database to forecast load movement, address electric vehicle charging needs and formulate long-term strategies for any number of emerging issues.
A Solid Foundation for Grid Transformation
Specific outcomes of the holistic distribution planning process can differ for each utility. But each should emerge with the data needed to set a solid foundation for planning the grid’s transformation.
A solid profile of system operations data, along with improved methods of monitoring and tracking performance data in real-time can provide a solid foundation to plan everything from deployment of advanced technologies needed to integrate new sources of renewable energy to larger-budget projects to upgrade an entire circuit. It can be an important framework for business process, guidance, technology and data that regulators seek.
Better planning and forecasting can even be a benefit to customer relations. With today’s energy consumers increasingly more knowledgeable, they often want to see outage and grid health information on demand.
With the pace of change in the power industry accelerating ever faster, the time to start holistic planning is now.
For more information on Grid Modernization or to contact the authors, download the full white paper here.