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Grid Modernization: Opportunity or Necessity?

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Grid modernization priorities vary widely around the country and, indeed, the world. Utility stakeholders have differing concerns and goals in every region. How would you order the importance of the key traits listed below? More importantly, how would you select the best course of action and communicate it to others?

Traits of a Modern Grid (US Department of Energy 2017)

  • Resiliency
  • Reliability
  • Security
  • Affordability
  • Flexibility
  • Sustainability

Is grid modernization an electric industry opportunity or a necessity? Your answer may reveal something about what motivates you.

Author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins taught in one of his seminars that a person's motivation often stems from their tendency to either embrace opportunities or to require necessity before taking action.

I am an opportunity person—tell me what we might accomplish together, and I am all ears. On the other hand, my son is much more necessity minded.

To me, Sunday evening seemed an opportune time for him to complete his chore before dark. I would tell him, "Son, this is a good time to put the trash cans out." His predictable response revealed his necessity-based mind-set: "Do I have to?"

I learned to communicate with him in his preferred style: "Yes, you do!" To me, it felt forceful. But, if he had to do it, it made perfect sense to him. "OK, Dad."

Is grid modernization an opportunity to improve, or something we must do? Just like people's motivation, it is not an either/or choice but a balance between the two extremes. It includes elements of both standpoints.

Thinking about grid choices in this way may clarify your view and, more importantly, help you see them from another perspective. Utility professionals must also clearly communicate grid choices to stakeholders. The benefits, impacts, and rationale must make sense to others who may see the world a little differently.

To select the best course of action, it is essential to appreciate that the grid is spatial—the question of where applies to almost every modernization objective. Spatial analysis is required to fine-tune the sustainable grid of the future.

It is essential to be able to evaluate the where of modernization options in terms of opportunity and necessity:

  • Where is the potential distributed energy resource (DER) hosting capacity?
  • Where do we need flexible services?
  • Where will electric vehicles require charging?

Where are the system risks in extreme weather events?

Spatial questions like where can only be addressed with GIS. The ArcGIS platform gives all users live, colorful visualization of the often overwhelming data to consider. It is part of a strategic investment in new capabilities to support the best grid opportunities and necessities.

Some people will readily embrace the amazing opportunities. However, just like my son putting the trash out on Sunday evening, some people will hold out for clear necessity—until they see why we have to transform the electric grid!

For more information on how ArcGIS helps utilities clearly evaluate and communicate grid modernization choices, download our free e-book.

Pat  Hohl's picture

Thank Pat for the Post!

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Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 8, 2019 1:20 pm GMT

Is grid modernization an opportunity to improve, or something we must do? Just like people's motivation, it is not an either/or choice but a balance between the two extremes. It includes elements of both standpoints.

I like this a lot. Is it mandatory? Well no, the grid has been working pretty well for many years and we could theoretically continue down that path. That said, technology progresses and that's more or less inevitable. So as technology attached to the grid evolves, customer needs likewise evolve and eventually it becomes necessary for the grid to do so as well. That means the question turns into: does grid modernization want to play catch up or is it better to get out ahead of the curve? The answer to that is pretty obvious

Pat  Hohl's picture
Pat Hohl on Oct 8, 2019 9:23 pm GMT

Matt, it looks like you're an opportunity person too. I appreciate the comment!

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Oct 8, 2019 1:32 pm GMT

IMO spatial analysis, especially the ability to perform what-if analysis is becoming more important as we experience more severe weather events. Places like Houston, Texas have experienced two severe flooding events in two years, when they went years without any serious flooding. Spatial analysis gives utilities the ability to foresee the potential impact of future events, such as severe floods, by identifying what facilities are most at risk, what segments of the population may experience outages and taking preventative action to mitigate these risks.

Pat  Hohl's picture
Pat Hohl on Oct 8, 2019 9:18 pm GMT

Well said!

Doug Houseman's picture
Doug Houseman on Oct 9, 2019 12:34 pm GMT

Grid Modernization (at least the strong part) is no longer an opportunity. The recent Amazon announcement of 100,000 local delivery vehicles by 2025 and the Post Office's plan to replace 850,000 postal vans with (most likely) electric vehicles should give solid meaning to electrification of transportation. Add GM's commitment to 22 models of EVs and Fords recent investment in an EV manufactuer and it points to accelaration of EVs. 

So what you say?

At approximately 20% of residences having EVs, any 5KV class circuit and its supporting substation exceed emergency rating most nights of the year, based on a typical design. Not for 15 or 30 minutes but for 3 to 8 hours a night. 

So what you say?

Well as we have seen in SMUG (thank you for the wonderful presentations on EVs SMUD!) EVs tend to cluster in a neighborhood, they are not like creamy peanut butter but more like cold chunky peanut butter. And households that have 1 EV, are more likely to buy a second, third and even a forth - based on data from state departments of motor vehicle records. 

It wil not be a "big bang" because there are limits to vehicle production in the US, but in June the Tesla Model 3 was the 6th best selling car in the US. The Ford F150 is the best selling "car" overall - in 2 years it will come with an electric model. How long before that electric F150 starts showing up in driveways? 

Having now modeled and simulated a couple hundred circuits, they are not ready for an EV onslaught. Cars can be built far more quickly than distribution circuits. Make decisions NOW on what you are going to do, and then make it Business As Usual for how to build, repair and re-build circuits (Hint: if you are still building new 5KV class infrastructure you are in trouble - even in rural areas {electric tractors anyone?]).

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Oct 9, 2019 3:35 pm GMT

Pat - good post.

Doug - I agree with you, in addition to EV's it appears that most renewable iniatives - transition of heating is another big one, are relying on electricity.  With the cost differential between distributed generation (now mainly in solar PV) and utility generation, the grid is going to be even more critical to all aspects of energy.  As a long time EV owner, the charge cycle is a large adder even to a home in a high Air Conditioning location like Texas.  We all assume that the local utility has the capacity to meet our individual needs all the way back up the supply chain.  I would suspect that they model expected demand and there will be significant choke points driven by EV's and other electrification efforts.  So investment is critical, and I suspect some sort of load management technology would add value to reduce peak demand. 

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