DistribuTECH

DistribuTECH, one of the fastest growing smart energy events in the US, will visit New Orleans in February 2019.

This article first appeared in Metering & Smart Energy International issue 4-2018. Read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

DTECH, as it is known by attendees, is designed to showcase innovation in the transmission and distribution space. This sector is undergoing a mega-transformation as solar, energy storage and other forms of distributed energy resources have a growing presence on the grid.

Responding to extreme weather events DistribuTECH 2018 was hosted at the Henry B. Gonzalez Conference Centre in San Antonio, Texas earlier this year.

Setting the agenda for the event, Teresa Hansen, Editor in Chief of POWERGRID International and conference chairwoman for DistribuTECH, observed that at a time when natural and manmade disasters are damaging the power grid, utilities must work with technology providers to keep the lights on.

“We hope you will leave here feeling more capable to do that and with a better knowledge of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” Hansen said to the assembled delegates.

This was a sentiment echoed by Paula Gold Williams, President and CEO of CPS Energy, who said her utility sets itself apart by remaining flexible and diversified. “You have to be diversified in this industry. You can’t be locked down on any one thing to survive. We have focused on making sure diversification is our major talent,” Gold-Williams said.

CPS has maintained its reliability through tornadoes, floods, winds and hurricanes, Gold-Williams reported, saying: “We’ve had great response times and restoration times mostly due to technology.”

Over its lifetime CPS, a municipal utility, has shifted its generation focus from being 100% gas focussed and has branched out to include nuclear energy, wind and solar power.

Gold-Williams said that the future of CPS will include more community solar power projects.

To support this increase in renewable energy, Gold-Williams reported that future plans included the implementation of a 5MW energy storage system.

“What will energy storage look like? There are still a lot of technology options out there.

I don’t believe it will exclusively be lithium ion (batteries),” she said. “We want to get our skills up in being able to dispatch that energy.”

Harness social media

Social media influencer Tamara McCleary shared that the energy and utilities space is an area that’s ripe for disruption. She added that the best way to harness that disruption is through social media.

“Social media isn’t just something kids and teenagers play with,” she said. “Social media can deliver those things we’ve always been trying to do: Getting our message out there in such a way that people are moved to make a decision.” She encouraged all utilities to be on Twitter, and not just to tell people about outages.

“You want to be able to make yourself relevant. Twitter is a big forum for social discussions and just because you’re not involved in that discussion doesn’t mean nobody is talking about you,” she said. “You need to be seen, you need to be heard and you have to be engaged.”

The brands people engage with the best are the ones that manage to humanise themselves, she said, and utilities can do this with a little creativity. “People don’t follow brands, they follow humans, and brands that humanise themselves get followed. It’s about being real. It’s about being authentic. It’s about being transparent,” she said.

The road to transformation

President and CEO of the New York Power Authority, Gil C. Quiniones, said technology is transforming his utility into the first utility to be completely digitised from end to end.

He spoke about the three forces reshaping the industry: decentralisation, electrification and digitalisation.

“Our one-way power flow is completely being changed into bidirectional and even multidirectional power flows,” he said.

“Digitalisation is the intelligence layer that makes the other two — decentralisation and electrification — come together.” A digital utility places the customer at the centre of the transformation, he said.

“It has to be end to end. We have to digitise everything inside and out,” he said. “A digital utility measures its success, in the end, based on the success of its customers.”

Most of the technological transmission happening today is occurring at the edge of the grid, he said. “Distribution technology… that is where we can transform this greatest technology that we call the power grid into the integrated energy network of the future for the benefit of all,” he said.

Michael Webber of Webber Energy Group noted that many modern comforts and the entire global economy are made possible by inventions from the 1800s.

“Even electronic vehicles were invented in 1839. We are due for some innovation, so I hope some of you out there are working on the next thing,” Webber said.

A lot of wealth is lost, he said, in ways we don’t see or think of. A third of the energy we consume in the US is used just to boil water to spin turbines to make more energy. One half the water we use is to cool power plants.

“We could power entire countries with just the energy we use to heat up water,” he said.

From Webber’s perspective, energy is water, and water is energy. Any restraint upon one is a restraint on the other. For example, he said, the 2012 droughts in India led to the country’s worst power outages.

Even something as innocuous as teatime can cause outages in the UK, when everyone puts the electric kettle on after their favourite soap opera. Basic concepts used in the industry, such as baseload power, may need to be rethought.

“Baseload power may be an obsolete and even dangerous term because it may no longer represent what the grid does anymore,” he said. “We need to have a supply following mindset rather than a load following mindset.”

Electrification is continuing to spread to the transportation sector, he said, adding that his children may be the final generation that ever learns to drive.

“Maybe someday people will pay money to drive an old beat up car around a dusty old track the way we pay to ride an old beat up horse around a dusty old track,” he said.

Finally, Webber recommended we all learn conservation at every level — from more efficient homes to more efficient power plants.

“Conservation works at every scale,” he said. “It isn’t the only answer, but it buys us time so that people like you can develop better solutions.”

What can you expect at DistribuTECH 2019:

• Augmented reality
• Blockchain
• Cryptocurrencies
• Decentralised energy integration
• DER and non-wires alternatives
• Digitalisation
• Drones/UAVs
• Electrification of mobility
• Energy storage
• EV charging
• Microgrids
• New value chains
• New venture
• Network digital twin
• Networking modelling
• Project capital funding
• Reality modelling
• Revenue retention
• Solar PV inverters
• Transactive energy markets
• Utility-scale storage
• Virtual reality