Opinions Matter

DistribuTECH Conference Attendee Survey Reveals Utilities’ DER Plans

Numerous grid stability, sustainability and economic benefits enabled by integrating distributed energy resources (DERs) onto power grids have been well-documented. As the financial, regulatory and technical costs continue to drop, the rapid growth of DERs has become one of the most disruptive forces ever experienced by the utility industry. Navigant Research forecasts that installed DER capacity will triple between now and 2025, growing from 124 GW to 373 GW worldwide. The energy world is quickly transitioning from one where generation follows load to one where load follows generation–a model that both reduces the volatility of the grid and allows it to deliver more energy.

figure 1 : Locations Represented by Respondents

Indeed, the topic of DERs–and how to manage them–dominated both the educational sessions and the exhibit floor at the DistribuTECH Conference & Exhibition in January. IHS Markit analysts noted in their coverage of the event that right from the initial kickoff session, “The clear theme of software and distributed energy resources emerged and would dominate the rest of the show.”

figure 2 : Breakdown of DER-related Initiatives

Given the importance of DER management systems and their ubiquitous inevitability, Enbala undertook a survey of conference attendees for the second year in a row at this year’s event in San Antonio, with a focus on attendee opinions on the future of DERs, the challenges they impose and utility plans for leveraging distributed energy assets moving forward. Enbala is the world’s leading provider of virtual power plant (VPP) software, according to Navigant Research, and a provider of distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS).

Who Responded?

During this year’s DistribuTECH, Enbala surveyed 108 attendees. This compares to 107 responses from 2017 DistribuTECH, so the numbers are very similar. The demographics, however, had some important differences.

Utilities responding to this year’s survey were mixed with 28 percent from investor-owned utilities (IOUs), 8 percent from co-ops, 30 percent from municipal utilities or public power authorities and 34 percent from energy service providers. This differs somewhat from the 2017 survey in that there was a higher percentage of co-ops and munis responding this year and somewhat fewer IOUs (28 percent vs. 49 percent in 2017).

Some 50 percent of this year’s respondents were from utilities with more than one million customers, whereas last year 74 percent were from larger utilities. This difference might be attributed to the fact that fewer people from the Northeast region of the U.S. participated in the survey this year, while a greater number of utilities outside the U.S. responded (see Figure 1- page 19). This year, attendees hailed from the Southern U.S. (26 percent vs. 22 percent in 2017), the Northeast (12 percent vs. 24 percent last year), the Western U.S. (22 percent vs. 23 percent last year), the Midwest U.S. (9 percent vs. 10 percent last year), Canada (6 percent vs. 8 percent last year) and Europe/other (25 percent vs. 13 percent last year).

Who’s Doing What?

Figure 2 (page 19) illustrates the breakdown of DER-related initiatives among the respondents. Some 25 percent of the respondents this year indicated that their organization had a distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) or VPP platform in place, compared to 18 percent last year. In addition, more than half whose utilities don’t already have a platform said they’d be implementing one in the next 36 months.

Among those who have already deployed the technology, the breakdown for 2018 shows a fairly even split between automated demand response (DR), integrated energy efficiency (EE) and DR, and DERMS pilots. This aligns with 2017 results except that the percentage of DERMS pilots has increased slightly over the past year, while the integrated EE and DR numbers have decreased slightly.

Investment Goals

Different utilities have various reasons and business drivers for investing in distributed energy assets. This year, 52 percent of those responding said sustainability was their No. 1 goal, followed by 46 percent who said they are focused on meeting grid reliability objectives. This is consistent with last year, although 2017 respondents placed slightly more emphasis on meeting grid reliability goals than sustainability. Comparisons of these and other business driver categories are reflected in Figure 3 (page 19).

figure 3 : Reasons for Investing in Distributed Energy Assets

A Look at the DER Playing Field

Batteries, customer load, solar, electric vehicles. . . the DER playing field is large. When asked what distributed energy assets their companies plan to connect and control, many said they intend to leverage all DER types listed in the survey, while others indicated various combinations of the options that were listed. Note that responses add up to more than 100 percent because respondents were asked to select all the options that applied to their scenario. Figure 4 illustrates the breakdown of assets the respondents’ utilities plan to connect and control.

figure 4 : Assets Planned for Connection and Control

How do you Measure Success?

As utilities become increasingly sophisticated about distributed energy management, the criteria for system selection become more exacting. When asked for opinions on the most important benefit that a DERMS or VPP should provide, speed and reliability were neck in neck for the most-often selected option, with 21 percent selecting speed and 19 percent selecting reliability. Next were security and flexibility at 10 percent each and accuracy at 8 percent. These results are illustrated in Figure 5. They align closely to 2017 results, with no appreciable difference from one year to the next.

figure 5 : Most Important Benefit of DERMS or VPP

How Fast is Fast Enough?

When asked to clarify the quickest response speeds they felt their utilities needed from DERs for effective load control, 28 percent said they required faster than one-minute responses. Some 16 percent said they needed 10-minute response speeds, 31 percent said they needed hour-ahead and 25 percent said they required day-ahead responses (see Figure 6).

figure 6 : Fastest Response speeds required

What’s Standing in the Way?

While more and more utilities are leveraging–or planning to leverage–DERs as a key part of their energy mix, challenges are holding back or delaying the speed of deployment. When asked to indicate which challenges are faced by utilities when it comes to DER deployment, this year, like last year, cost and regulatory challenges topped the list of obstacles (see Figure 7). Regulatory issues led the 2018 issues list, but primarily because cost decreased dramatically as a concern when compared to 2017, as did technology obstacles.

figure 7 : Challenges Utilities Faced with DER Deployment

The Utility Path Forward

The foundation for a reliable, sustainable energy future rests on more distributed and intelligent power networks. VPPs and DERMS are the software platforms that provide the means to this end, enabling both the producers and consumers of energy to harness the power of distributed energy. The results of the survey at DistribuTECH demonstrate a few key things:

1. Utilities are continuing to embrace DERs and their positive role in reshaping the world’s power grids as they shift away from a traditional reliance on centralized coal-fired and nuclear power plants to a mix of distributed energy assets.

2. Utilities are looking far beyond simple DR when it comes to how they are leveraging DERs, and as they expand their horizons, the criteria for effective management of these resources are becoming more sophisticated.

3. There is a perception that the challenges to deployment are lessening.

Ginger Juhl is chief experience officer for Juhl Communications, a technology marketing company focused on the utility industry.

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