DistribuTECH 2016: Orlando Show Covers Strategies and Technologies for Adaptation and Survival

By Rod Walton, Senior Editor

One of DistribuTECH’s 77 conference sessions earns the rapt attention of another full crowd.

For three days, DistribuTECH Conference and Exhibition 2016 electrified the City Beautiful.

The massive power grid T&D show in Orlando attracted more than 11,000 attendees from 78 countries. They absorbed the intricate knowledge of 435 speakers and authors fortifying 77 conference sessions or visited the booths of any of the record 504 exhibitors displaying on the approximately 144,000-square-foot exhibition floor of the Orange County Convention Center’s West Hall.

Numbers alone cannot define the show, but the sheer volume of expertise, networking opportunities and, yes, good times seemed to make it a must-see for those who came to central Florida.

“DistribuTECH was a great show with fantastic contacts and conversations,” said Red Lion Controls product marketing manager Colin Geis, whose company, like many others, introduced new products at the show. “The companies in the market and at the show are established and will be here for the long run, providing robust solutions for next-generation applications.”

It all got off to a rousing start Tuesday morning, Feb. 9, in the Valencia Ballroom of the convention center. The keynote featured local leaders in Mayor Buddy Dyer and Linda Ferrone, board president of the Orlando Utilities Commission, who talked about their city’s commitment to clean energy and progressive upgrades of grid infrastructure. Itron CEO Philip Mezey noted that the industry is doing a pretty good job modernizing a grid that senses and communicates.

“Our real opportunity is to build on that solid foundation,” Mezey said to kick off the keynote.

Michael Liebreich, founder and advisory board chairman for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, detailed global spending trends on renewable technologies. The final speaker, NOVA Science Now host and Yahoo Tech columnist David Pogue, kept the keynote crowd laughing and thinking at the same time with his rapid-fire rundown of how many “disruptive” new companies are changing the way consumers travel, read and even charge their batteries. The generation which is in college now is the first to never know life without the Internet, he noted, and this rising multitude of consumer options is not going away.

“The only thing I can tell you for sure is that it’s going to be a wild ride,” Pogue said.

The former Broadway conductor finished his keynote with a musical tribute about this technological revolution set to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

The 14 conference tracks, which covered vast informational ground from advanced metering to substation integration and automation, featured sessions from Tuesday, Feb. 9, through Thursday, Feb. 11. The sessions in each track were heavily attended by visitors from all over the globe.

During one Renewables Integration session, “Utility Experiences with PV (photovoltaic) Integration,” Pacific Gas & Electric’s Masaru Natsu shared experienced insight on how his company is dealing with intense rooftop solar penetration in California. Natsu, PG&E’s emerging technology engineer, noted that PG&E has a new solar customer about every 11 minutes, which equates to 4,200 new PV installations every month.

Michael Liebreich, founder and advisory board chairman for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, detailed global spending trends on renewable technologies during the keynote address kicking off DistribuTECH 2016.

“All of this new integration of renewables has to integrate on an old system,” he said. “The challenge: Is our grid ready?”

DistribuTECH’s sessions sought to help answer those questions and prepare power grid professionals for the progressive energy future. In another session, “Managing Customer Expectations in the Dark,” representatives from ComEd and several municipal utilities detailed how they got social media interactions both wrong and right. Seattle City Light’s Chief Information Officer Dirk Mahling revealed the way his utility is using proactive analytics and search efforts to understand and engage customers online even if they are not getting on the utility website. “There’s a ton of conversations where they talk about you and don’t hashtag you…We wanted to identify what people are saying about us when they are not using our name.”

Others during that session admitted mistakes they had made by being late adopters to social media. For a long time, Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative’s Lee Ayers said, his utility was in denial of how people had changed their ways of communication. A 2014 ice storm and lack of expected outage restoration times really drove home the need to adapt.

“Worse than a bad decision is no decision,” Ayers said. “Some information is better than none even if you have to adjust it.”

DistribuTECH attendee looks at smart grid networks display in the exhibit hall at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center.

All work and no play could make for a hard time, despite the vibrant content. So DistribuTECH 2016 offered plenty of fun. Companies such as ABB Wireless and Schneider Electric played host to dinners and breakfasts, respectively, that updated projects, made new announcements or simply made a few new friends. The “Fun In The Sun” networking reception Wednesday, Feb. 10, remade the Valencia Ballroom from a chair-stuffed keynote hall into a wide open Party Central with entertainers on stilts and a band beckoning celebrants to the dance floor.

Some events mixed good food and choice information to consider. Schneider Electric’s executive breakfast briefing, held in the Lake Mizell Room of the Hilton Orlando, detailed the company’s new plans to install a microgrid at its Boston One headquarters while also sharing the latest details on microgrid innovation from both Schneider and Duke Energy.

“There is unparalleled capital pouring into the industry to support microgrids,” Andy Bennett, Schneider’s senior vice president of U.S. energy business, said. “Some see it unsettling working with microgrids. We don’t have those apprehensions.”

The Fun in the Sun networking party brought DistribuTECH attendees together with brightly costumed entertainers traversing the ballroom floor on stilts.

The willingness to change is important, perhaps ultimately life-saving, to the utility industry these days. Most of the 77 sessions dealt with adaptation to survive in some form or another. One of the seven Mega Sessions on Wednesday focused on “New Revenue Streams for Electric Utilities.” The all-female panel of executives from National Grid, Duke, Kansas City Power & Light and PG&E posed provocative challenges for utilities that must deal with rising customer expectations and choices on how to get their electricity.

Many talked about how their utility is embracing solar or wind or both and certainly demand-response options. National Grid’s Mona Chandra noted that they are trying to make 21st century adjustments to a 20th century grid. But one thing they cannot do is give up.

“We’ve got 100 years investment in a centralized grid,” Duke Energy’s Melisa Johns said at the Mega Session. “We’re not going to just throw that away.”

The exhibition hall was like a state fair midway of industry attractions. Whether it was GE Grid Solutions’ massive enclave or Doble Engineering’s display of its transformer monitoring screen, the companies that showed off their wares had plenty to show. An alphabet soup of companies, from Advanced Control Systems to Xtensible Solutions or Itron to Zenner Performance, was there to supply professional nourishment.

But all good things come to an end, so by Thursday afternoon it was time to give away a brand-new Chevrolet Camaro and begin tearing down the exhibits. It was time to say goodbye. Until next year.

DistribuTECH 2017 will be Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2017, in San Diego. The tagline for that event is “Harboring Energy Innovation.”

The DistribuTECH 2016 “Gemstone” sponsors included Itron, Oracle Utilities, SUS, Honeywell Elster, Landis + Gyr, Schneider Electric, Leidos Engineering, OSI and Siemens. Body copy

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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