Transformation. Distributed energy resources. Customer-centricity. These were the main themes I gathered from the recent record-attended DistribuTECH 2017 in San Diego, CA. These buzzwords, describing the significant changes impacting the utilities industry, wove their way throughout the event: from the opening keynote speeches, through the well-attended sessions, to the conversations I had with fellow convention goers. While the utilities industry has arguably been in a disrupted, transformative stage for many years, 2017 seemed to mark an inflection point. The root cause can be traced to the second theme of the event—DERs, or distributed energy resources, defined generally as distributed generation, demand response, electric vehicles and energy storage. These new DERs have been growing in popularity across the United States largely due to the rapidly falling cost of PV installations, the proliferation of battery storage, and increased uptake in electric vehicles. While many utilities have been dealing with these technologies and their related challenges to the traditional grid structure for some time, they are reaching a scale that will require technology upgrades, advanced control software, and a completely new way of thinking on how to manage the grid.
Underpinning the importance of DER growth in the industry, 2017 was the first year DistribuTECH conference with a dedicated session track on topics related to DER and other non-wire alternatives (NWA). I spent most of my time attending these sessions to better understand how utilities are thinking about the grid impact of these technologies and how to address them. One interesting take away from a few leading utilities was the focus on customers—not surprising considering the industry’s fairly recent move away from calling them “ratepayers”—but actually the twist was in how they were defining customers. In addition to conventional customers, these forward-thinking energy providers included DER providers and others in the market that have the ears of the consumers, because they are effectively acting on behalf of utilities’ existing customers. In my view, utilities working with these providers in a collaborative fashion will only serve to create a more seamless, efficient grid.
Utilities will certainly take different approaches on how to address these new challenges in the future. Some wait for the market dynamics to change around them, while others will be forced by regulators to plan accordingly. However, the trailblazers will embrace the change and look for ways of benefiting financially on the installation and control of these resources. With such a rapid pace of change underway, I can’t wait to see how much more will change by next year’s conference in San Antonio.