Technology challenges distribution planners

by Dr. Jason Black, Battelle

The slow economy has had at least one silver lining: our aging distribution infrastructure has had a break from the relentless climb in peak demand that power companies have seen over the past few decades. But as the economy continues to slowly return to normal growth, that reprieve may be at an end. Distribution planners need to prepare now for added stress from a changing economy and emerging technologies.

The recent recession has depressed demand; however, residential and industrial loads are likely to start increasing as the economy normalizes and construction, manufacturing and retail all pick up steam. New technologies may also drive significant increases in base and peak demand—for example, electric vehicles and their power-hungry charging stations. Other changes, such as a growing use of solar PV panels on residential and commercial property, will impact power supply and demand in ways that are difficult for distribution planners to predict.

All of this puts power companies in a quandary. Much of the time, their infrastructure may be running at only 30 percent of capacity. But they have to build infrastructure to meet the highest peak demand, even if those levels are only seen for a few hours a year. Over-building is expensive and wastes resources that could be put to better use elsewhere. But failing to accurately predict and prepare for peak demand has costly consequences in terms of real dollars and public goodwill. For distribution planners, it’s a reverse game of Price is Right: they need to keep their infrastructure investment as low as possible, without guessing peak demand even one kilowatt too low. 

Battelle is working with power companies to address the uncertainties they are facing. One solution is to help power companies make better use of the infrastructure they have in place. Demand management solutions are rapidly growing in popularity and public acceptance. Properly used, they can spread demand more evenly and keep peak demand from getting too high. Battelle’s Grid Command à¢â€ž- Active Demand Management suite uses real-time bidirectional communication between consumers and utilities to improve response time and ease-of-use for both parties. 

But demand management is only part of the story. For effective planning, utilities need modeling tools to help them accurately predict infrastructure needs under a variety of complex scenarios. Battelle Grid Commandà¢â€ž- Distribution gives power companies the most advanced analytical and modeling tools available today for more effective planning, testing and resource allocation. 

New technologies have been particularly difficult for utilities to model. Planners need to understand how new demand and load management alternatives will impact peak demand and grid performance. They also need better tools to understand how integration of renewable resources will impact the grid.

“Today’s distribution grid was not built for the changes we are anticipating over the next five to ten years,” Battelle’s Steve Krak said. “Utilities need to change the way they operate in order to safely integrate new assets and power sources.  Effective modeling is critical to understand these emerging issues.”

Battelle Grid Commandà¢â€ž- Distribution combines advanced parametric assessment with sophisticated visual reporting tools to help planners visualize and understand how their grid will respond under various scenarios. This gives power companies increased visibility into the capacity and sensitivity of their current grid systems, so they can decide how to deploy new resources.  

If the economy starts growing rapidly again, power companies won’t have much time to react. Better modeling and demand management can help them stretch the capacity of their current infrastructure and make more effective decisions for the future.

Battelle is the world’s largest nonprofit research company. Battelle’s contract research portfolio includes energy and environment, consumer and industrial, national security, and health and pharmaceutical.

Dr. Black is a research leader in Battelle’s Energy Systems business, with responsibility for leading Battelle’s research initiatives in the grid systems area. Prior to joining Battelle, he led GE’s demand response research and development program, developing algorithms for optimal use of demand response by utilities. Dr. Black has more than 18 years of service as a Military Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Army, where he is currently a Lieutenant Colonel. He received his PhD from MIT in Engineering Systems, and also has a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and a B.A, in international Studies from the University of Notre Dame.

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