Transformation, Anyone?

With so many forces impinging on the delivery business, our industry must be ready to make the transformation required to not only remain relevant but also to become vibrant deliverers of innovation.

With so many forces impinging on the delivery business, our industry must be ready to make the transformation required to not only remain relevant but also to become vibrant deliverers of innovation. That said, I am making a personal transition to writing a monthly column for Transmission & Distribution World in which I will share perspectives from decision makers who impact the energy marketplace. Since I will be working with my good and longtime friend Rick Bush, I know the ride will be exciting.

Today it is difficult to read an industry article or hear a utility executive presentation without the author or speaker discussing the important challenges that we face. While change in this industry is nothing new, the speed and magnitude of this current shift will make the final outcome difficult to envision, much less predict.

I began my career almost 40 years ago as an engineering intern in the distribution engineering department of the Lower Colorado River Authority. My first task was to read circular charts that were produced by ink-pin-on-paper analog recorders. After examining each chart and determining the peak, I would apply the appropriate multiplier to calculate kilowatts, kVar and power factor. I dutifully recorded the results of this cross-eyed-inducing effort, along with the date and time of the observation, into an industrial-size logbook. Each annual logbook contained 260 data entries for each feeder and served as the starting point for distribution forecasting and planning efforts.

We’ve Made Giant Strides

Today’s engineering interns might think I’ve described how cave pictographs were made. Today our information and communications systems gather, process and store many magnitudes greater data in a fraction of a second than I could have gathered in a whole year. This process of making the grid “smarter” will continue as the costs of communication bandwidth and computing power decline.

The application of intelligent digital technology to our power grids is not the only change that separates the utilities of my early career from today. Environmental concerns and resulting energy policy, regulatory challenges, cybersecurity, system reliability and resiliency, aging infrastructure and increasing rates are some of the other change drivers in play. As impactful as they may be, I believe none of the above will be as transforming as what is happening on the customers’ side of the meter.

In the future, utility customers will have real alternatives to grid power available to them. Energy efficiency and distributed generation are rapidly taking their place alongside traditional energy sources. Add in electric vehicles, and future customers may present a far different (and at times negative) load profile to the utility serving them. Already delivery systems with high concentrations of solar are experiencing adverse operational impacts today.

Along with future challenges, we also have access to potential opportunities. Demand response still holds the promise of being a controllable resource that may help to balance the growing amount of wind and solar generation connected to the grid. Electric vehicles could add to this demand response potential. Advances in power electronics may allow solar converters to become grid resources, as well. And electric energy storage could become a valuable grid resource, or it might even become the final element needed to remove some solar photovoltaic customers from the grid altogether.

If looking back nearly four decades feels like an archeological expedition today, just imagine what the view will look like when today’s engineering interns contemplate their early careers in 2050. Given all the forces at work today, the change going forward will likely be massive when compared to that experienced in the past. The technical challenges alone are daunting enough, but they may prove to be relatively straightforward when compared to the regulatory and business model changes that may be needed. The ability to anticipate such a future will be difficult at best, but it is a future that must be anticipated if utilities are to remain relevant and indeed thrive.

Fortunately for my eyesight, I only spent a small part of my career reading circular paper charts. Since that beginning, I have been fortunate to have been involved in almost every aspect of the electric utility business: I have been an engineer designer and utility executive; I have run system operations and customer care; and I have been a consultant and a strategist. Along the way, I have been blessed to work with many truly
remarkable people. The opportunity to write this column adds yet another dimension to that experience.

It is my intent to use this column as a vehicle to examine the forces that are driving change in our industry and also to explore possible future outcomes. I am calling on fellow explorers to share your insights and opinions with me as our industry journeys into uncharted waters.

Please contact me at jbaker@tdworld.com, and we will provide you with a forum for your perspectives to be heard.

 

 

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