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Earlier this year, I was asked to host a panel at DistribuTech, one of the largest transmission and distribution (T&D) shows in the country.
I wanted to counter program against the prevailing notions that electric utilities are becoming less important. I wanted to stress that we still put big projects in the ground—and overhead!
For this panel I got two great guests:
- George Bjelovuk, Vice President – Energy Solutions, Siemens
- George Culbertson, Vice President, Global Power Delivery Markets, HDR
I came into the panel with a central thesis: “Are we living in the Grid Golden Age?” My personal experience as a transmission project manager would seem to suggest so. I believe this increased spending is due to several factors:
- Renewables—The grid has to adapt to input from thousands of generation sources rather a few large ones.
- Cyber security—You look inside some of these substations as I have, and the relay and control equipment would be familiar to your grandparents.
- Obsolescence—Again, I often see breakers and transformers that were young in the Kennedy administration.
- Cost Recovery—Essentially, utilities spend money on capital, they make money. Given the option of building a power plant or a transmission asset, the path of least resistance is likely transmission.
“We see significant investments happening in the utility industry right now across all sectors—the transmission sector in particular,” says Bjelovuk. He adds that’s largely due to renewable interconnections.
Culbertson disagreed slightly. “Although transmission spending has been steady or peaked at certain times, there’s a lot of heavy transmission in this country that has been stalled due to permitting issues,” he says. “I think it could be a lot better.”
I asked about the longevity of equipment. Siemens—full disclosure—builds breakers we’ve placed into service.
Culbertson, who has spent his career in the sector, says older equipment was typically “overbuilt.” Today, he says equipment is engineered to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.
Bjelovuk added to that notion that equipment today is much more robust from a control and monitoring standpoint. “We’re seeing them operate in environments that actually can extend their longevity because we’re more closely monitoring their performance in a network,” he says.
Electric vehicles entered the conversation surprisingly more than I had anticipated. Bjelovuk calls electric load from EVs—particularly charged at home—”the central air conditioner of the next decade.” He cites the shift in distribution planning that was required when A/C units proliferated in the 1950s-60s.
For large fleet charging, Culbertson believes that will follow the typical upgrade model for large customer delivery. In my experience, substations have been built specifically for large commercial/industrial customers.
When I asked what I could expect to be developing as a PM in the next decade, my panelists had the following ideas:
- More high voltage DC transmission lines
- On-site generation and utility service is aggregated as “energy as a service”
- Substation control house equipment with EMP protection
Still, both panelists believe the grid as we know it will remain the backbone of our electrical system.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get away from a backbone grid,” says Culbertson, “because of the ability to have power flows all the way across the country with different load peaks and things like that.”
“I think it will be an exciting mix of delivery from the utility and on-premise generation,” says Bjelovuk, “served in ways that we haven’t thought of before.”
I guess I can expect to stay pretty busy for the years to come! (This podcast originally aired in March, 2020.)
Dauenhauer is a member of the DISTRIBUTECH International advisory committees. Clarion Energy is the parent company of DISTRIBUTECH.
Energy Cast Podcast is hosted biweekly by Jay Dauenhauer.
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