Unlocking Value at the Grid-Edge: Extending the Reach of the Utility Control Room

Just 10 years ago, the magnitude of behind-the-meter distributed energy resources (DERs) at the edge of the grid was not materially significant. All that has changed, and we’re now at an inflection point: by 2030, we can expect to see roughly 200 million DERs connected globally across a variety of types and brands.

As an example, residential solar panel installations are expected to surpass 4 million by 2023, and electric cars and buses will add more than 6% to global energy demand by 2040, according to Bloomberg energy analysts. Inside the home, more and more thermostats and water heaters are connected to the grid every day. In the U.S. alone, this results in nearly 200 GW of flexible load, which is 20% of the system peak, according to The Brattle Group. The unconstrained operation of these assets presents several challenges—and opportunities—to the grid operator.

The Blindsided Grid Operator

Most grid operators today simply don’t have either visibility or control of behind-the-meter DERs. This lack of grid-edge situational awareness is increasingly a cause for concern, with many utilities grappling with the issue of phantom load.

The lack of visibility affects grid operators in both long and short timescales. For example, passing clouds can cause dynamic fluctuations in solar output, causing that customer node to unexpectedly draw or inject power. Without real-time data from—or control access to—the DER itself, the operator cannot plan for this eventuality or dynamically manage the situation, nor can it benefit from the potential value of these inherently flexible DERs.

At the same time, if utilities can find a solution to not only provide visibility but also the capability to orchestrate across distributed resources, utilities can unlock a bankable set of assets. With the right software tools in place, DERs can be aggregated and controlled to provide various grid services, from system-wide load reduction to localized voltage regulation requests, allowing the utility to firm renewable output and mitigate grid conditions such as peak load, congestion, and voltage deviation scenarios. In addition, situational awareness in the form of real-time device telemetry, asset state, and forecasts can allow the utility to dynamically fine-tune grid operations and planning.

ADMS vs. DERMS

As DERs proliferate across utilities’ service territories, distribution operators and planners have the most at risk, and the most to gain. However, the question remains: What software system, or system of systems, is best suited to unlock value from these DERs? The existing range of systems under their purview do not provide an adequate level of DER access and control. The primary responsibility of the Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS, Figure 1) is to integrate utility information and systems in order to unify distribution network management, ensuring reliability and optimal operation of the system. An ADMS is also typically purpose-built to monitor and control utility-owned, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA)-connected equipment, assets, and DERs.

1. Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) software provides safe and secure management and orchestration of the distribution grid, while a distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) offers a platform for system operators to manage grids that are mainly based on distributed energy resources (DERs), including electric vehicle (EV), commercial and industrial (C&I), and distributed generation (DG) assets. Courtesy: EnergyHub

Customer-owned, behind-the-meter DERs are fundamentally different from utility-owned DERs, and can be demarcated in several ways:

■ Ownership models.

■ Communication protocols.

■ Connectivity mediums.

■ Data fields they relay.

■ Availability and flexibility.

■ The steps required to access them.

While a number of ADMSs today do have modules that control DERs, these assets are utility-owned and thus fully available and dispatchable. The ADMS is not built to provide real-time situational awareness of, nor does it have any level of control over, these behind-the-meter DERs. With a large magnitude and diverse ecosystem of assets to integrate with, utilities will need to look beyond the ADMS for help.

Utilities are increasingly turning to Distributed Energy Resource Management Systems (DERMS) providers, such as EnergyHub, to manage behind-the-meter, grid-edge, and customer-owned DERs. EnergyHub’s Mercury DERMS platform is built to provide three key services to utilities: resource formation, grid services, and situational awareness.

The building block for any DERMS is how the resources are formed. For customer-owned DERs, owners need to be engaged with and ultimately motivated to make their DERs available for use by the utility–whether that be heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; water heaters; solar panels; batteries; or electric vehicles. Companies offering energy management solutions should leverage technical and business partnerships with device manufacturers to acquire customers through various marketing and engagement channels. As DERs are brought into the DERMS, this customer-centric approach takes into account the inherent unpredictability of consumer preference and behavior in addition to DER-specific capabilities and operational constraints.

Once the resource is formed, the DERMS provides situational awareness and a variety of grid services to the grid operator. Based on the grid service need and objective, the DERMS takes into consideration each DER’s flexibility—including its active and reactive power capabilities along with its location and schedule-specific availability—before determining which asset or groups of assets are best-suited to provide the requested grid service.

The relationship between the ADMS and a DERMS is mutually beneficial. By way of a downstream systems integration with the DERMS, these services may be requested from the ADMS. A configuration that allows the ADMS and the DERMS to play to their respective and symbiotic strengths is able to provide crucial visibility and control of DERs as well as empower grid operators and planners to make informed and timely grid management decisions. The unique capability of the DERMS—to be customer-centric, agile, DER-aware, and scale across asset classes—will make the platform an increasingly critical element of fully integrated, holistic utility operations.

Aakriti Gupta is product marketing manager, and Varun Mehra is a senior product manager, for EnergyHub, a Brooklyn, New York-based group providing utilities with distributed energy resource, and software and program management, solutions.