The Fuse

The Distributed Grid: America’s Technology and National Security Imperative

by Areg Bagdasarian | March 05, 2021

Today’s power grid—a combination of modern monitoring technologies with aging physical assets, such as transformers and substations—is the culmination of decades of linear change and recent upheavals in technology and energy policy. Utilizing this grid are increasingly sophisticated consumers and businesses interacting with their utility like never before.

The grid is entering a new phase of dynamism where it will become more distributed, more resilient and manage more complicated power flows. The increasingly IoT- (Internet of Things) and algorithm-driven grid in the United States, is significant not only for our economic prosperity but for our national security, contributing to a more robust and resilient power supply. Innovative software solutions that will serve as a catalyst for grid success are America’s core strength and are in demand right now.

Grid change drivers

The drivers of grid change are numerous. First, the rise of renewable ‘distributed’ power sources like wind, solar and battery storage are coming online in utility scale applications and locally in homes and businesses behind the meter. DERs have found such success that in 2019, US annual energy consumption from green energy sources, exceeded coal consumption for the first time in over 130 years.

Our homes will also become smart energy producers.

Our homes will also become smart energy producers. Energy efficient household appliances will be connected to microgrids to share consumption data with new algorithms, as solar panels work with on-site battery generation that can both meet the power needs of a given home but feed that power back to the grid.

All successful orchestras need a good conductor, and algorithm sensors and IoT workflows will play their role in making sure that power can be dispatched to where it is needed the most or monetized for new actors in the system.

Take Tesla’s Autobidder platform already in use in the Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, the home of the world’s largest lithiumion battery at 100 MW. The platform provides real-time trading and control for independent power producers and utilities to monetize battery assets autonomously. This has translated into lower costs for energy consumers and improved system security and reliability, by providing short bursts of input and output power for the safe operation of the grid due to extreme events or even cyberattacks. Autobidder and battery storage provide a solution for former resiliency issues at the site, even when conditions are suboptimal.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are now firmly part of the mainstream and our aspirations for clean transportation. They are also remaking the grid. Remarkably, electric vehicles, which accounted for 2.6 percent of global car sales and about 1 percent of global car stock in 2019, registered a 40 percent year-on-year increase. Grid operators are preparing for the integration of millions of vehicles that will do most of their charging from customers’ homes, and during night-time off peak hours. Managed charging that prioritizes charging electric vehicles when wind and solar availability is highest and making sure EV charging does not create massive peaks in demand are key priorities.

Utilities desire a model that balances the charging needs of EV owners with maintaining reliable power delivery without undue stress to the grid. Enel X, the Italian conglomerate that purchased Boston-based EnerNOC offers a utility-scale managed charging solution that can delay or reduce charging rates across EV chargers based on signals including the availability of renewable energy, day ahead & real time pricing or time of use rates. In a world where EVs are forecast to be 10 percent of global passenger vehicle sales by 2025, rising to 28 percent in 2030 and 58 percent in 2040, this will be the difference between successfully integrating and monetizing EV charging demand, or having it overwhelm the grid leading to wild price fluctuations.

Power outages and restoration

However, the distributed grid is of little use if it is highly susceptible to power interruptions and unable to pick up the slack. Utilities have greatly improved their ability to anticipate power outage and accelerate restoration thanks to artificial intelligence software, sensors and drones. When hurricane Wilma ravaged Florida in 2005, Florida Power and Light took 18 days to get to full restoration. In 2017, Hurricane’s Irma’s wrath took only 10 days to full restoration. Sensors and AI modeling allow for better pre-staging of restoration crews who can anticipate which assets and areas of a grid will be hardest hit. Once a storm does strike, the first 12 to 24 hours after the event are critical for decision making – “After a storm we want data,” says Michael Putt, Florida Power and Light’s smart grid and innovation director.

“After a storm we want data.”

To prevent outages in the form of brushfires before they start, power producers are leveraging software solutions in one of the most overlooked and deadly areas of late; vegetation management. Inadequate vegetation management has been the cause of devastating fires particularly in the American West. Nearly half of PG&E’s 2018 ignitions (fires) were caused by electric lines coming into contact with vegetation. Geospatial solutions including 3D modeling and lidar solutions from firms such as Quantum Spatial are enabling utilities and the entire ecosystem to use a risk-based approach that can pinpoint a singular tree by determining how close to a transmission line it is, if it’s sloped upwards or downwards, and if it falls, in which direction it’s likely to topple over, what it will strike, and what damage it might it cause.

The advanced use of new IoT software systems for managing a more distributed grid have led to more resiliency and security. Many of these systems are still in their infancy, but by enabling a more data driven approach to energy management the grid will be able to manage new demands placed on it more adroitly. It will also be able to repair itself and mitigate extreme events that originate as hurricanes or as attacks by rogue actors. America’s ability to innovate in the energy software realm and export leading software to the world will bring economic prosperity and national security as a nation fully prepared for the new distributed ecosystem of energy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not be shared by The Fuse.