Having attended DistribuTech, North America’s largest transmission and distribution conference, for several years I went to this year’s event in San Antonio with a few expectations about what I might see there. After a year of devastating wildfires, leading to one industry player’s very public bankruptcy, I was keen to see how vendors and industry luminaries would address these types of challenges. I was not disappointed—both on the convention floor and in the break-out sessions was a consistent theme around the need to increase resiliency (and to do it), the opportunities for microgrids to help reduce widespread outages and how to improve monitoring to reduce fire risk.
This focus on resiliency, coupled with the ongoing discussions on ways to continually integrate an ever-increasing amount of DERs to the grid, led me to what I think was really the main theme of DTECH this year: flexibility. I like to think that flexibility is the key to longevity—this is true not only for our human bodies, but for the power grid as well. Flexibility, in mindset and in action, is not only critical for efficiently and effectively operating a grid to maintain safety and reliability, but to remain relevant with customers.
Grid operators are living in interesting times. While there have been significant improvements over the past 100 or so years in how an electricity grid is operated, its fundamentals have basically remained the same. In the absence of building an entirely new grid from the ground up, utilities are challenged with integrating increasing amounts of renewables, energy storage and electric vehicles into a network that simply wasn’t designed for change. This need for flexibility will become increasingly more evident and critical as these resources become commonplace.
The flexibility theme was all around DTECH, with some of the largest sponsors showcasing solutions on managing, monitoring and analyzing various aspects of the grid. In fact, the term “flexibility,” along with “holistic” and “orchestrating” were overheard throughout the three days. So while advances in hardware remains important for grid modernization, it is software solutions that are becoming increasingly critical. Maintaining a strong, resilient grid will require the ability to marry legacy hardware and systems with new digital technologies and methods to optimize, requiring advanced software systems to do so. In fact, at this year’s conference we saw a number of examples of traditional hardware manufacturers and legacy software providers announcing partnerships with startups offering next-generation technology like DERMS, data analytics and machine learning.
All of this points to grids as we know them truly becoming digital platforms. A platform that provides the ability to bolt-on all manner of new technologies from DERs, EVs, smart appliances and more, and layer in advanced digital technologies that can optimize for power quality, price, reliability and a whole host of new benefits that we have yet to see. With all of these “apps” running on the platform, flexibility is most definitely the key.