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Transforming utility customer service: Looking ahead to the grid of the future

Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash
Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

This series of articles has explored both grid-scale and behind-the-meter grid optimization strategies and the implications for utility customers. Previous articles in this series have reviewed all the necessary components of a successful customer-focused grid optimization rollout such as regulatory frameworks, battery storage, software investments, communication protocols, and program design elements. This last article discusses how these various elements come together to form the grid of the future.

While it is impossible to know precisely what the grid of the future will look like, there are many attributes that are starting to come into focus. The proliferation of customer-sited, behind-the-meter (BTM) distributed energy resources (DER), such as batteries, electric vehicles, solar, and demand response, present both a challenge and opportunity. DERs are a challenge because they interact with the grid in a way the grid wasn’t necessarily designed to handle, and issues surrounding voltage and two-way power flow are already starting to emerge. But in the grid of the future there is a real opportunity for utilities to manage DER as part of a portfolio of flexible load that can be used to alleviate regional and local network issues. The envisioned end result is a cleaner, more efficient grid.

In order to manage customer sited DER in a beneficial way, utilities will need to have the right grid optimization program structures in place. As previous articles have discussed, this means having the appropriate program and incentive designs in place to entice customers to enroll their assets in a utility program and minimize customer opt-outs. It means having the right dispatch platform software in place and pushing for open communication protocols so that the dispatch platform can “talk” to the largest number of connected devices at the lowest cost. And it means having the right regulatory structure in place to properly oversee and incentivize this outcome.

An optimized grid of the future will also require closer integration between utility departments and the establishment of good internal governance procedures. This closer integration is necessary to ensure the continuing safe and reliable functioning of the electric grid and superior customer service.  A grid optimization program will require staff from energy efficiency to develop load control programs and enroll customers into those programs, operations staff in the control room monitoring and dispatching assets enrolled in the programs, system engineering staff receiving large volumes of interconnection applications as programs are rolled out, energy supply teams changing how they procure energy based on the availability of instantaneous load reductions, and IT staff dealing with issues associated with system integrations, billing, and cyber security.

Governance and communication will be key in the grid of the future. All the departments listed in the previous paragraph — energy efficiency, operations, system engineering, energy supply, and IT — will have to interact with each other in a way that may not have been necessary in the past. Having a written plan with defined responsibilities and timelines can be very helpful. For example, the demand response governance plan at Eversource states that the day before a dispatch of batteries and other load reducing assets, an email is sent to all control room staff and all supervisors in the call centers informing them of the key parameters of the planned dispatch. This way, if an issue arises, key personnel are aware that a dispatch is underway and can take appropriate remedial measures which may be different than if there were no dispatch.

In the grid of the future, the software platform that monitors and dispatches customer sited assets will help give the utility additional visibility into what is happening at the grid edge. Eventually, grid operators could have a single view of the grid and any underlying activities. This view should include grid-edge and behind-the-meter assets. This will allow grid operators to make the best possible decisions on how to optimize performance or respond to issues. At some point in the future, it may be possible to automate the grid optimization decision-making process with the seamless dispatch of customer-owned and utility-owned assets in order to resolve issues so customers experience minimal interruption to their electrical service.

Implementing a grid optimization program that utilizes customer assets can lead to a grid of the future that generates economic, reliability, and environmental benefits for all customers. In order to realize that future, it is imperative that all the elements that have been discussed throughout this series of articles are properly addressed.

Other articles in this series: