If there’s one thing electric utilities can plan on, it’s change. With the emergence of Distributed Energy Resources (DER), the industry is evolving quickly along with consumer requirements for energy supply and management. These developments have already had significant implications for grid modernization and ultimately, they point to a continuing shift in the utility business model.
While DER is becoming increasingly viable and utilities have begun testing and implementing DER applications, some questions remain. What technologies can be used for DER currently, and what’s coming down the pike? What’s the future impact of the development in DER? And how can utilities modernize infrastructure to prepare for these changing dynamics?
In this article, we will provide further insight into the current state of DER and offer some next steps for utilities to consider for the future.
Changing Network Needs
Without question, DER solutions are making a mark on the industry and their influence will grow in years to come. According to Navigant Research’s 2017 forecast report, global DER capacity is expected to expand from 132.4 gigawatts (GW) in 2017 to 528.4 GW in 2026—growing more than 300%. The report highlights technology advances, business model innovation, changing regulations, and sustainability and resilience concerns as drivers that have brought DER into the forefront of future planning and development surrounding the energy infrastructure.
As DER technologies present themselves more across the grid, utilities can expect to see greater demands placed on network infrastructure. Based on this trend, there are some important implications utilities must consider to keep pace with development and changing customer needs.
Network flexibility: While demand for DER is increasing, standards are still evolving for electric vehicles, solar inverters, and the potential evolution of Distribution Automation (DA). Network infrastructure needs to be flexible in supporting new application protocols once they’re adopted as standards, and as new products and solutions become poised for deployment.
Interoperability and integration: Networks not only need to be capable of supporting advancement but need to do so while protecting existing investments. Different applications will have different requirements for throughput, service level, and edge communications. Thus, being able to integrate and support multiple generations of technology on the same system regardless of their discrepancies is a critical requirement.
Cybersecurity: With grid modernization strategies, utilities are looking to add more metering endpoints online that can yield advanced capabilities and data insights. However, a larger, more intelligent, and more powerful network is an increasingly attractive target for attackers—particularly in comparison with older generation systems with minimal read-only type capabilities. Securing the smart grid is essential to furthering the adoption of DER technologies to better serve customers and conserve energy.
To be successful with objectives for grid modernization in the DER movement, utilities must consider how much and what type of technologies they will need to deploy to accommodate industry changes—weighing their unique objectives and determining how existing or future infrastructure deployments could help utilities carve out the right path for their grid modernization strategies.
Progressive Solutions for DER Adoption
Choosing the right network is crucial when it comes to building a smart utility—one with the flexibility to accommodate the emergence and expansion of DER. The quality of the communication technology utilities use also determines whether data on usage and other important information can be transmitted efficiently, securely, and reliably as the grid evolves over the long haul. These aren’t decisions to be taken lightly.
As the industry moves away from the traditional one-way electric grid model, AMI can help to facilitate a smoother transition to DER. AMI systems, already in use by many electric utilities, allow staff to remotely and efficiently gather usage data and other important information. The systems give utilities a centralized solution for decision-making, providing valuable insights across the grid even as applications expand. As DER becomes more prevalent and new technologies come online, utilities will be able to use their AMI systems to help support and analyze impact and performance.
While network demands are growing, the overarching challenges facing many organizations today are nothing new. Flexibility is a key objective for many utilities that deal with varying territories and topography within their coverage areas. Coupling AMI systems with a long-range, two-way communication network allows utilities to address evolving service needs as grid demands grow across both dense and sparsely populated areas.
Because cybersecurity and emergency response are important concerns in DER development and expansion, a private communication network is also a necessary consideration for utilities to help protect critical data while improving emergency response times. A private network means utilities never have transmission interference or have to share frequencies. Data is transmitted securely and quickly over a spectrum that is protected by federal law.
With the right AMI system, utilities will have a secure solution that can transmit and receive data while scaling to meet future needs. As demands grow for innovative features—such as demand response, DA, and lighting—new applications can easily be incorporated into existing operations over the AMI system.
Exploring the Path Ahead
DER is opening the door for new customer requirements in support of consumer choice, energy management, and engagement. As advancements continue in areas like solar energy, electric vehicles, and energy storage, DER will have an increasing impact on management strategies across the grid. It’s still a work in progress, but utilities must now start to define their objectives for grid modernization in context with the emergence of these solutions.
While DER offers new opportunities for customers, the dynamics for today’s utilities follow a familiar trajectory. Applications and requirements have expanded through each phase of the grid’s evolution—from drive-by AMR to smart metering and smart grid solutions and now to grid modernization. As the industry continues to evolve, smart utilities can leverage their current infrastructure and invest in technologies that will help build for the future.
In a landscape where utilities are constantly asked to do more with their networks, AMI solutions offer capabilities to continue reaching further. By deploying AMI—backed by a flexible communication network—utilities gain the flexibility needed to support the development of new applications and protocols. As consumer demands continue to evolve and new solutions are ready to roll out in the field, utilities can respond with the efficiency, responsiveness, and analytical capabilities needed to meet the challenges and opportunities DER will create.