In the 1930s, the U.S. electricity industry, still in its infancy, took on an enormous challenge: expanding its power networks to deliver electricity to all corners of the country, thus expanding energy access and the opportunities of modern life to rural residents, who at the time comprised the majority of the population. Working with rural electricity cooperatives, private and municipal utilities steadily built out the grid of power plants, substations and transmission lines that are the foundation of today’s electric grid, which now includes more than 8,000 power plants.
While the task was complex, the goal was simple: turning the lights on in every American household. No doubt the industry succeeded. Using essentially the same technology built at its inception, power utilities wired nearly the entire country and continue to reliably deliver electricity to Americans today.
But the modern energy utility faces unprecedented challenges: rapidly decentralizing networks, sharp changes in energy demand throughout the day, more frequent extreme weather events, and cybersecurity threats. Customers adopting distributed energy technologies like smart meters, solar panels and energy storage systems compound those challenges. Today, customers expect more from their energy utilities—more information, more convenience, and more choices.
With these new challenges, being reliable is no longer enough. Those in energy utility circles now talk about achieving “grid resilience”–that is, building a grid that not only reliably delivers power, but also quickly responds to and recovers from the inevitable, unpredictable disruptions inherent to the modern energy economy.
In the past, infrastructure upgrades, such as building a new power plant or replacing transmission lines, might have been enough to fix problems on the grid. But constructing a billion-dollar power plant is a slow, expensive solution to problems that demand much quicker responses. To achieve grid resilience, building new assets is not the solution, but intelligent management of existing solutions is.
Today’s digital technologies enable far greater connectivity and control for energy utilities than in the past. Using the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which is comprised of sensors that digitally connect physical assets to each other and to the utility operations center, an operator can get an instantaneous status update on multiple physical assets, regardless of their size or distance from each other. This continuous monitoring allows operators to spot problems sooner and apply solutions more quickly.
But monitoring is just the beginning. IIoT technologies can also run tests and generate data, allowing for predictive maintenance that fixes problems before they become power outages. These emerging capabilities can help utilities leverage Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) as assets to their grid, rather than as obstacles to overcome. For example, a key concern for utilities is the increase in volatile electricity flow from DERs. Historically, utilities had less control and visibility on this energy flow and it was a problem and a risk to existing assets.
Now, utilities can use IIoT to track each of these DERs and integrate the data they collect into bigger-picture operations and decision-making. Once integrated, the IIoT system can then continuously analyze this data, use the DERs energy to overcome problems in the grid, identify changes in the environment that requires handling and finally, automate a response. For example, the system can spot a bump in energy production from customers’ PV installations in a certain region, then increase the output in the main grid in response or prompt the grid energy storage system to discharge power when needed.
The system can quickly respond to predicted upswings in declines in energy loads, shifts in predicted electricity prices or weather changes and adjust energy flow accordingly. The result is a smarter, more resilient grid, one that uses data to efficiently manage and make use of existing assets.
As the U.S. and other countries around the world feel the mounting impacts of climate change, the importance of grid resilience is all too clear. Utilities must shift their focus from expansion to adaptation. Fortunately, today’s digital technologies place the tools needed to cost-effectively adapt at utilities’ fingertips.
About the author: Ulik Broida is vice president of marketing for analytics system provider MPrest. Broida brings over two decades of experience in marketing advanced technological solutions. He started his career in the IDF where he was responsible for managing over 30 engineers developing a complex communications system comprising multiple advanced technologies. Broida served as Director and VP Marketing of leading telecommunications, networking and security companies including ECI Telecom, Alvarion, NICE, Wavion and RAD. He has a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, and M.B.A. from Tel Aviv University.