Back in 1995, Union Electric, now Ameren Missouri, pioneered a new technology to monitor power usage in the home. At the time, I was manager of distribution operations and oversaw implementation of this then-innovative tool in 1.2 million households, improving customer service and efficiency.
Remote monitoring of electricity usage was a cutting-edge concept. But our radio frequency monitoring meters quickly proved a good idea. The technology provided us with unprecedented insight to our business and enabled us to improve our service and manage the grid with a level of capability we’d never had before.
Fast forward 20 years, and the utility industry is still looking for new tools to better manage the grid, boost network utilization, optimize generation dispatch and maintain reliable service. But the challenge today is vexing
Utilities must navigate managing a grid composed of a dynamic and complex mix of generation sources, including intermittent solar and wind power, as well as traditional coal and nuclear baseload. And customer expectations around uptime are only increasing. Indeed, it’s no overstatement to say that a reliable supply of electricity is essential to keep our society working.
Further complicating the task of managing the grid is the fact that its composition is ever more dynamic. In 2014, renewables accounted for more than half of capacity additions to the U.S. grid and more will be added in the form of bulk and, in the case of solar, distributed resources as well.
Coal-fired generation is coming offline and faster than utilities expected. There is continued uncertainty around the future of nuclear. The job of maintaining balance in the electric grid is not only a moving target but also a target that moves ever more quickly and unpredictably.
Solving today’s utility challenge revolves around navigating the changes in generation and load with a limited set of transmission planning and operational tools. Utilities and operators need game-changing strategies for generation and transmission.
For decades utilities have been relying on their ability to build new lines to address network challenges. But today, near-term problems are emerging that cannot be solved with these business-as-usual options. A new line can take more than 10 years and billions of rate-payer funds to plan and implement, by which time the grid’s needs may once again have shifted.
The way forward comes back to breaking new ground as Ameren did 20 years ago. This time around we need rapidly deployable and flexible solutions that offer utilities greater awareness and control over their transmission systems, and that also enable them to more effectively manage the networks they already have. Utilities need options that will allow them to strike a balance between leveraging their existing assets and deploying increasingly scarce capital for the most strategic projects.
There is of course no one silver bullet. But amongst a host of promising possibilities, utilities can now distribute power flow control technology across their networks to observe and mitigate transmission constraints. By observing and in real-time moving power away from heavily loaded lines onto underutilized paths, utilities have a new and remarkably efficient tool for alleviating congestion, providing transmission headroom, avoiding inefficient generation, and maintaining reliable operation.
These solutions are also modular and immediately deployable, which eliminates one of the critical challenges associated with long-term planning in an era where generation and load are so unpredictable. Lastly, the technology is entirely re-deployable, which means utilities can move the solution to another location on their transmission networks as conditions evolve.
It will be challenging for the industry as it reinvents itself and considers new ways to plan and operate the grid. But let’s not forget that this is also an industry that has for more than a century been reliably running the single largest machine known to man.
Once utilities fully embrace solutions like distributed power flow control, then all manner of innovative applications and value streams will surface, just as they did at Ameren back in 1995.
Tom Voss is the chairman of Smart Wires. He is formerly chairman, president and CEO of Ameren.