Grid Edge and Digital Technologies Take Center Stage at EEI Convention

During breakout sessions at this year’s Edison Electric Institute (EEI) Convention on June 13 and 14 in Chicago, discussions centered mostly on issues far from what’s traditionally been considered the center of electric utility operations: central station generation. Instead, panels focused more on technologies and policies at what’s often called the “grid edge”—where customers large and small interconnect with the grid.

In fact, even the session titled “The Clean Power Plan and Beyond” spent more time on issues beyond the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-reduction plan, which is currently stayed, awaiting judicial review.

From solar, storage, and smart city initiatives to electrification of transportation and “forging sustainability partnerships,” the emphasis this year was on everything “innovative” rather than traditional. That theme was telegraphed by a pre-event announcement that the association representing investor-owned utilities had partnered with startup incubator 1776.

Taking a System View

The Clean Power Plan panel kept coming back to themes of flexibility and the need to think of “the integrated energy network,” as the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) likes to call it, said EPRI President and CEO Mike Howard.

Lisa Davis, who sits on the Managing Board of Siemens, pointed to the magnitude and complexity of change globally in energy systems and noted that they are beginning to operate in more of a digital environment, leveraging software to develop digital power plants and virtual power plants. Today, she said, the only energy systems that are successful manage the “whole system as one system”—from generation to transmission and distribution.

Though Ohio Public Utility Commission Commissioner Asim Haque and Berkshire Hathaway Energy Senior Vice President Cathy Woollums did comment on the Clean Power Plan, the panel’s focus was more on what is happening in the U.S. and around the world regardless of the results of litigation.

Many countries around the world are pursuing decarbonization plans, even as some, like Morocco, which Davis mentioned, are developing their electricity systems with significant renewables goals. At the same time, she said, countries must focus on “balance,” learning from the example of Germany, which added too many renewables too fast, throwing the market out of balance and creating a system that “isn’t resilient at all.”

In addition to themes of balance, resilience, and flexibility, the need for new transmission was raised. Howard said, “We’re going to need a lot more transmission” to enable the addition of more low-carbon generation, as well as more sophisticated power electronics.

Throughout the EEI convention, artists created graphics boards highlighting the main themes of each session. This one shows themes of the Clean Power Panel discussion. Source: POWER
Throughout the EEI convention, artists created graphics boards highlighting the main themes of each session. This one shows themes of the Clean Power Panel discussion. Source: POWER

Davis acknowledged that the policy-maker’s job is very difficult because the “system is complex and changing,” but she added that all need to contribute to the dialog because “it’s not an easy system.”

Big Data to the Rescue?

One way utilities are seeking to manage an increasingly complex system is by “Harnessing ‘Big Data’ Analytics to Benefit Customers,” as one panel’s title phrased it. The really big numbers associated with the potential for big data usage are attention-getting, but “listen for the business outcomes,” advised CenterPoint Energy Executive Vice President Tracy Bridge.

The outcomes CenterPoint is interested in from data analytics include outage management (minimizing truck rolls) and an advanced distribution management system; a “customer vision platform” (customer convenience and mobility are essential, he said); and “revenue protection,” that is, minimizing electricity theft.

Brad Gammons with IBM proposed that “data is a resource” that allows you to create a digital reproduction of the business, improve safety and reliability with data analysis, and engage in predictive maintenance. What’s more, the new move, he said, is toward artificial intelligence (AI) because there’s too much data for humans to analyze. The upside of AI is that it can “assist the worker of the future.”

Brian Hoff, cochair of Exelon’s Innovation Group, said his company is starting small with projects, piloting them, perhaps at one plant, and then scaling where appropriate. One example they are looking at is using iPads for electronic work packages.

Exelon is also working with GE and its new Predix platform on multiple applications. One goal is to better predict the outcome of wind generation to bid into the market.

Ganesh Bell, GE’s chief digital officer, predicted that data and digital transformation will change the grid more than all other electricity industry trends, including renewables, distributed generation, and behind-the-meter applications. What’s more, he argued that data opens up new possibilities for disruption and enables potential new business models. Exelon, he said, is thinking about business models beyond electrons.

The electricity industry, Bell said, is one of the least digitally mature but has the highest opportunity, even if it just takes existing data to the cloud for analysis.

Themes of the panel discussion about big data displayed graphically at the 2016 EEI convention. Source: POWER
Themes of the panel discussion about big data displayed graphically at the 2016 EEI convention. Source: POWER

In response to the question of whether utilities should buy or build their own data analytics capabilities, the panelists agreed that there would be some of both. Regardless, the industry needs to address the issue of standards. Without interoperability, Bell said, none of this will happen.

Gammons noted that China has an edge in that respect, as there are already open-source standards, to which Bell added that GE’s Predix platform is open source.

When moderator Jay Vrins, managing director and energy practice leader for Navigant, asked the panel what main breakthroughs they expect to see five years from now, Bridge answered that they would involve the customer and mobility and apps. He sees his utility building apps that customers want.

Gammons answered that it would be organizational competency. Billions of dollars are going into “cognitive modelling” of data, he said.

Hoff said, yes, AI and “video analytics” will be with us five years from now.

Bell responded that in five years companies will be using data as a strategic asset, and we’ll have a “different kind of a workforce,” because the digital transformation is about people.

Renewables Demand Transmission

Another sign of the speed of industry change—as Charlie Smith, executive director of the Utility Variable Generation Integration Group, noted in opening the session on “Accelerating Renewable Energy Integration”—is that five years ago, he would not have imagined so many panels at this event would be talking about renewables.

And, in fact, his panelists joked that renewables didn’t seem to need any help with acceleration. Although the deployment of wind and solar varies around the country, representatives from two of the states most experienced with integrating large volumes of renewable electrons sat on this panel: Steve Berberich, president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), and Joe Viola, vice president for regulatory affairs for Hawaiian Electric.

Even in Vermont, which has “some very aggressive state policies,” said Tom Dunn, president and CEO of Velco, that state’s transmission company, renewables are at 15% and operations are having more challenges managing voltages. Sue Tierney of Analysis Group added that the acceleration of renewable deployment in the U.S. has multiple drivers, including policy, but “customer interest” is another strong one.

How to address the challenges posed by more variable renewables on the grid? In Vermont, they sometimes have to curtail renewables, Dunn said, but they are also using enhanced weather forecasting to model and predict load. They’re also working with ISO New England to gain visibility for the solar on their system so they better understand how to estimate load.

CAISO’s Berberich commented that large amounts of renewables are “not a challenge necessarily—it’s the world we’re going to be operating in.” That world is “different” and is a renewables-based system “complemented by other things,” which includes ramping of traditional units.

The other challenge California has, he said, is that it has surplus power. That’s what keeps him awake at night.

When California has periods of 13,000 MW of surplus power, it has to curtail “zero-marginal-cost, clean power that has to be thrown away.” How to manage that is the question, he said, because of the cost and political issues. “Hooking up” with other states or balancing areas might be one approach.

Participants in the 2016 EEI conference renewable session (left to right): Tom Dunn, Velco; Steve Berberich, California Independent System Operator; Charlie Smith, Utility Variable Generation Integration Group; Sue Tierney, Analysis Group; and Joe Viola, Hawaiian Electric. Source: POWER
Participants in the 2016 EEI conference renewable session (left to right): Tom Dunn, Velco; Steve Berberich, California Independent System Operator; Charlie Smith, Utility Variable Generation Integration Group; Sue Tierney, Analysis Group; and Joe Viola, Hawaiian Electric. Source: POWER

All agreed that strengthening transmission and distribution is essential for managing greater amounts of renewable energy on the system. But Viola pointed to another necessary factor in the new world: the need for “flexible planning,” not just flexible generation. Planning has been a challenge for Hawaii in particular because the swings in oil prices and technology advances have both been so fast. Managing near-term and long-term goals has been challenging but necessary, he said. Because of Hawaii’s declining sales and load, and a “duck curve” similar to California’s, it is looking at electric vehicles (to add load).

Tierney addressed the pricing and markets issue by noting that across states, policies had been designed to kick-start and “condition” markets, but that has led to an assumption that that’s the way things will be in the future. Instead, she said, “pricing and markets and policy need to evolve.”

Berberich observed that Germany lost most of its thermal fleet because of depressed pricing resulting from renewables policies. In this country, too, he said, “Clearly, thermal units are going to sell less power,” so, “clearly, you need some sort of capacity procurement.” However, “generic capacity is not valuable,” he clarified. What matters is “flexible capacity that can start, stop, ramp.”

Tierney addressed another aspect of the changes already well under way: “We just have to educate the customer—and actually regulators” about the changes and the rates that have to be set to reflect fixed charges.

The Speed of Solar and Storage Deployment

In a related session, “A Bright Future for Solar,” Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance, led a panel of utility and solar developer representatives in a discussion about how much new solar will show up and how fast. The responses ranged widely, depending on region, with Southern Co. Executive Vice President and COO Kim Greene at the low end.

In fact, Greene noted that only five residential customers have signed up for Georgia Power’s solar program (though many more have installed solar through third-party suppliers).

The familiar issues concerning customer-sited solar were raised, and storage was part of the discussion. Jeff Weiss, managing director of Distributed Sun, said there would be more grid storage but that cost-effective customer storage also is coming soon.

Jim Hughes, CEO of First Solar, agreed, saying economic onsite storage will be coming “relatively quickly.”

In any case, Hughes added, the U.S. will need more transmission infrastructure.

As for the need to change rate structures around customer-sited energy production, Ken Zagzebski, president of AES US, noted that many public utility commissions are reluctant to complicate rate structures.

Hamm shared results of a recent survey and focus groups conducted by her group showing that a majority of Americans want solar, but not on their property. Hughes agreed, and suggested that community solar projects are an ideal solution.

Electric and Autonomous Vehicles Will Be Ubiquitous Before You Know It

A panel on “Taking Electrification to the Next Level” brought the audience up to speed on developments in electric cars, trucks, and buses as well as the policies and other drivers of greater electrification in the mobility sector.

Moderated by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Chairman, CEO, and President Tony Earley, the panel included Proterra President and CEO Ryan Popple, Florida Power & Light (FPL) President and CEO Eric Silagy, Portland General Electric (PGE) President and CEO Jim Piro, and General Motors U.S. Director of Commercial Product and Medium Duty John Schwegman.

Proterra is the leading electric vehicle (EV) bus manufacturer and has contracts with 27 (mostly midsize) U.S. cities. Though the company gets calls of interest every month from all around the world, Popple said they are wanting to focus on the U.S. first before they expand globally. Unlike most startups, he said Proterra is exceeding its bookings plan.

The drivers for electric buses range from battery improvements to mayors and local leaders—from Stockton, California, to Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky—who want to improve urban air quality. Batteries are already twice as efficient as they need to be in order to compete with liquid-fueled buses, which get 4 miles per gallon, Popple said. E-buses get the equivalent of 22 miles per gallon.

Despite Florida’s conservative politics and limited incentives for EVs, Silagy said many are surprised to learn that the state has the fifth-highest penetration of EVs. And with FPL, plug-in bucket trucks “have been a real hit,” because the utility no longer has to idle diesel trucks outside homes while doing storm restoration work.

This artist is finishing up details on the theme board for the electrification panel at the 2016 EEI convention. Source: POWER
This artist is finishing up details on the theme board for the electrification panel at the 2016 EEI convention. Source: POWER

Among the barriers to getting more EVs of all sizes on the roads is charging infrastructure. PG&E’s Earley commented that “charging stations should just be part of the [electricity] network” and be part of the utility’s infrastructure charges.

PGE’s Piro agreed that utilities need to evaluate the infrastructure backbone but added that it’s not necessarily something utilities can do now. First they have to understand the requirements. But, “at the end of the day,” utilities will have some responsibility for safe charging infrastructure and partnering with vendors.

Autonomous, self-driving vehicles (presumably electric) were also discussed in light of recent talk of partnerships between ride-sharing service Uber and Fiat Chrysler and between Uber competitor Lyft and GM. GM’s Schwegman said his company is trying to be a leader in autonomous vehicles, especially with safety technologies. He pointed out that the sensors developed for safety—such as backup vision, forward crash alerts, and blind spot sensing—will help develop autonomous capabilities.

GM expects to see autonomous vehicles tested by the end of this year and maybe on the roads in five years.

FPL’s Silagy sees high value for autonomous vehicles in his state, especially for its retirement population. As for concerns about the safety of such vehicles, Silagy, a pilot, said autopilot is safer than a human pilot, so safety will outweigh the risks—something the insurance industry is watching carefully as well.

Digital and Virtual Power Plants

In the event’s exhibit space, a number of companies that have provided both traditional and emerging solutions to utilities were on hand. Many provide technologies that sit at the grid edge, from Nest to Tendril to Opower. But integrating central station generation, grid edge/customer-sited resources, and transmission and distribution was a display created by GE and Exelon that highlighted the ways GE is working with Exelon and other companies to provide greater value from the energy assets, as GE’s William Howard told POWER.

GE and Exelon displayed the concept of a digital power system at the 2016 EEI annual convention. Source: POWER
GE and Exelon displayed the concept of a digital power system at the 2016 EEI annual convention. Source: POWER

Under the banner “The Future of Electricity Is Digital,” a circular mockup of various energy resources sat with enhanced reality cameras pointed at the moving parts, feeding data into displays that demonstrated how new GE services based on its Predix platform can provide greater data analysis, operational insights, and decision-making than has previously been possible. One component of GE’s ecosystem is the “digital twin” of a power plant—whatever its fuel source.

Digital technology also enables another new concept in the electric utility world: the virtual power plant.

POWER also talked with SunPower and Sunverge executives about their virtual power plant project with Con Edison, for which more than 300 New York homes with solar and battery storage will be aggregated as a dispatchable power source for the utility. The companies say it is likely the largest residential distributed energy storage project in the U.S.

The $15 million pilot, which was announced on June 13, covers the five boroughs of New York and is an “opt-in” program. The solar-plus-battery systems will provide customers with backup power in the case of grid disruption and will enable the utility to enhance reliability by dispatching battery power when needed. The system is expected to integrate 1.8 MW of solar power and 1.8 MW/4 MWh of battery storage. The pilot is part of New York State’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative.

Qualified participants will lease SunPower solar systems, installed on their homes, “to help reduce the homeowners’ monthly electricity costs,” and for “an additional low monthly payment,” participants also will have Sunverge Energy battery systems, owned by Con Edison. During an outage event, the battery storage would be available “to power certain essential load appliances in the home.”

The companies’ press release explains that, “Using the storage system’s intelligence, Con Edison will be able to link the hundreds of solar-plus-storage systems together into a ‘virtual power plant’ that can act as a local generation resource to supply power to the grid during peak usage periods. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) integration will provide remote monitoring and control, allowing Con Edison to forecast and optimize the performance and reduce the need for the utility to rely on traditional non-renewable power sources to meet peak demand.”

Gail Reitenbach, PhD, editor (@GailReit, @POWERmagazine)

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