Grid modernization is an exceedingly complicated endeavor that is redefining how utilities operate
Chris Campbell may have one of the most challenging jobs at Salt River Project (SRP), a utility that provides power and water to more than two million people in central Arizona. One of Campbell’s responsibilities as SRP’s senior director of distribution and telecom operations is to manage the utility’s distribution grid modernization initiative. This 10-plus-year undertaking, known at SRP as the Distribution Enablement Program, aims to advance dozens of new capabilities critical to grid planning and operations. SRP’s future grid will rely on numerous technologies that are not all mature today, so Campbell’s team needs to assess when to deploy them at scale across the grid. What’s more, many companies, universities, and other organizations want to partner with SRP to help develop new grid technologies.
“There are so many technologies and partners to get our hands around that we needed a way to ground and prioritize all these things,” said Campbell.
SRP’s solution was to develop standard procedures, methods, and milestones to guide the design and implementation of all pilot projects, field demonstrations, lab studies, and other research. The utility also standardized procedures for deploying and scaling new technologies broadly across the grid and incorporating them into grid operations and planning. This R&D pipeline, which SRP calls the Distributed Resource Integration Value Enhancement (DRIVE) program, also defines processes for prioritizing research and documenting lessons learned and insights. A key part of DRIVE is a new technology innovation laboratory that enables staff to set up and test equipment. Prior to the launch of DRIVE, each research activity was managed independently, with no clear connection to strategy or priorities and no consistent knowledge transfer approach.
“This pipeline is helping us to organize the chaos,” said Campbell.
The Why and How of Grid Modernization
SRP’s effort to redefine the way it conducts research and scales technologies reflects a broader trend in the electricity sector: as grid modernization initiatives proceed around the world, utilities are making fundamental changes in their business operations to manage the enormous task effectively.
Numerous factors are driving utilities to develop multi-year grid modernization initiatives. The frequency of extreme weather is growing. The number of grid-connected distributed energy resources is accelerating, and utilities need to integrate them into grid planning and operations. To build a more flexible, reliable, and resilient grid, utilities are investing in more advanced technologies, such as distribution automation and operating systems that enable more awareness and control of the distribution grid and connected devices. Many of these technologies are still emerging, and their performance is not well understood.
During the last two years, nearly every U.S. state has launched regulatory or legislative efforts related to modernization. In addition to national emissions goals, many states and jurisdictions have established targets for greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, and energy storage. Customers expect more from utilities, including personalized services, real-time information on outages, greater resiliency, and the ability to install smart appliances and easily connect solar, energy storage, and electric vehicles to the grid.
“Many modernization initiatives today involve a fundamental change in how grids are operated and planned,” said Don Von Dollen, an EPRI expert on grid modernization who has helped more than two dozen utilities develop and refine their modernization strategies. “Every utility will have a different vision of what a modern grid is as well as a different strategy and pathway for realizing that vision.”
Grid modernization is a complicated endeavor, requiring robust strategic plans and substantial, well-defined, and carefully coordinated investments sequenced over many years. It can potentially involve numerous utility departments, including generation, transmission, distribution, customer service, asset management, workforce management, and information technology. While adding new capabilities, utilities must continue to deliver low-cost, reliable electricity.
There are many potential pitfalls. While a technology might hold promise, deploying it while it is still maturing or before it is needed can lead to higher costs and poor performance. For example, a distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) may become necessary as utilities consider ways to integrate increasing numbers of distributed energy resources into their grids. By tracking and testing DERMS technology as it matures and by learning from peer experience, utilities can be better positioned to apply lessons learned and support a more successful deployment when they need it.
Integrated Planning and Good Communication
For SRP, a key driver of grid modernization is the rapid growth of solar, electric vehicles (EV), and other distributed energy resources connected to the distribution grid, all of which can result in more dynamic demand, supply, and power flows. In SRP’s service territory, there are currently about 30,000 customer-sited rooftop solar systems with a total capacity of about 276 megawatts. SRP expects this number to grow dramatically over the next decade. In addition to rooftop solar, SRP has 648 megawatts of utility-scale solar power online or contracted and under development, with a goal of 2,025 megawatts by 2025. Most of this will be connected to the transmission grid, though some may connect to the distribution grid. While about 18,000 of the three million vehicles in SRP’s territory are currently electric, the utility has a goal to manage charging for 500,000 EVs by 2035. Increasingly, SRP’s distribution control center will need to manage these resources while maintaining the safety, reliability, and resiliency of the grid.
Like many utilities, SRP has faced the challenge of how to coordinate grid modernization across different company departments. SRP’s Campbell is responsible for developing and updating a distribution grid modernization roadmap, which is a timeline of specific actions needed to achieve various new grid capabilities. In parallel, other SRP departments—such as transmission, customer programs, generation, and resource planning—each have their own modernization roadmaps, all of which need to be integrated into a coherent company-wide effort.
“Historically, these groups planned independently, but we know that this initiative can’t be managed in parts and pieces,” said Campbell. “A key is to have a holistic and integrated process. I spend a lot of my time aligning staff around all the pieces that need to come together.”
According to Campbell, SRP created a new “integrated planning process” consisting of numerous staff from different departments that serve as facilitators, with an aim to build relationships across departments and develop a company-wide integrated system plan. Because technologies, grids, and customer needs are changing rapidly, modernization roadmaps change every year, and integrated planning can help the departments adapt to the changes quickly. “These facilitators are reinforcing the importance of working together and are building a new culture,” said Campbell.
Indeed, EPRI’s Von Dollen has observed from his work with utilities how essential it is to have extensive collaboration among departments. “An investment in a new capability in one department could have beneficial applications in other departments,” said Von Dollen. “A utility may miss an opportunity to reap the full benefits of investments when one department develops a modernization plan without adequately engaging with other departments.”
According to SRP’s Campbell, because modernization is likely to impact the daily details of grid operations in a significant way, it’s important to involve grid operations staff in the development of a modernization vision and implementation plan. “At the end of the day, these are the people who will be implementing these changes,” he said.
For Campbell and his team, effectively communicating their modernization vision has been an important part of gaining support for it at all levels of the company. “Grid modernization is a tremendously complex problem to solve, and the solution will be complex,” said Campbell. “To help people across the company understand these issues, it’s important to use simple terms to explain the changes and how they align with corporate strategy and a roadmap of actions.”
“Prerequisites” for the Future Grid
Campbell points to another approach SRP has used to integrate modernization initiatives across the entire company. The utility has pursued what he calls “foundational” capabilities and investments that are essential to enable the many advanced capabilities of the future grid. “These are the prerequisites for modernizing our grid,” said Campbell.
One foundational area is developing standards for data so that different departments can analyze the same data to yield information and insights. For example, because both customer relations staff and grid operations staff rely on customer data to do their jobs, putting the data in a standard format helps to integrate these teams.
“Good data is critical for everything we do,” said Campbell. “Our grid planning group recently implemented a new load forecasting tool that draws on customer, weather, economic, and other types of data. Good data standards were essential in the success of this project.”
As part of another foundational investment, SRP has spent the last three years updating its geographic information system (GIS) to provide more complete, accurate, and timely data. This will enable a new advanced distribution management system (ADMS) that incorporates DERMS to aggregate, track, forecast, and control the output of large numbers of distributed energy resources. “The ADMS will allow us to manage grid voltage and power quality in a future grid with a more dynamic supply and demand of energy,” said Campbell.
Supporting Utilities in Their Modernization Journeys
EPRI offers a range of services to support utilities in developing their grid modernization strategies, using an approach that deconstructs modernization into smaller pieces that can be easily evaluated and then reconstructed into an overall plan. Over the last 15 years, EPRI has worked with more than two dozen utilities on their grid modernization strategies, building a deep understanding of what makes modernization successful.
“Our approach makes a daunting task much more manageable,” said Bruce Rogers, another EPRI expert on grid modernization.
A modernization strategy includes a detailed set of objectives, a list of new capabilities needed to achieve the objectives, and roadmaps to acquire the capabilities. Examples of objectives are integrating distributed energy resources, reducing the number of outages, enhancing customer experience, and maximizing workforce productivity and safety. Capabilities are tools, technologies, processes, and expertise associated with operations, planning, grid infrastructure, monitoring, communications, cybersecurity, the customer, and much more. Examples include planning models, generation forecasting for distributed solar, augmented reality tools for field workers, and customer behavior analytics.
EPRI uses a systems engineering approach to synthesize the specific capabilities and technologies needed by a utility, leading to insights on their interdependencies and the timing and pace of their deployment. An example of the interdependence of technologies: the benefits of sensors and other measurement devices on the grid may be limited if they are deployed without the necessary communications networks and data management systems. A systems engineering approach may also lead to deployment strategies that begin with simpler solutions followed by more sophisticated approaches. The final product of EPRI’s analysis is a cohesive, comprehensive strategy.
“We have observed that the objectives and capabilities vary widely among utilities depending on what is driving them to modernize their grids,” said Rogers. “For example, we worked with one utility that focused on integrating solar, while another company prioritized managing and integrating EVs. A third company identified asset management as a top objective because aging equipment is impacting grid reliability.”
In 2019, SRP asked EPRI to conduct a formal assessment of its modernization roadmap. “Our CEO wanted an independent third-party assessment that could be presented to our board,” said Campbell. “It’s easy to get stuck in doing things a certain way. EPRI challenged us to look at our roadmap in different ways.”
Drawing on their experience working with other utilities on grid modernization, Von Dollen and Rogers provided SRP with feedback on its strategy, its planned pace of deployment, and how its roadmap compares with other utilities’ roadmaps. In addition, dozens of EPRI and SRP technical experts met to closely examine 10 technical areas, identifying areas in need of further development.
Rogers and Von Dollen host a monthly webcast series for utilities to present their modernization strategies and roadmaps. They have recently published a guide on developing a company-specific modernization strategy.
Key EPRI Technical Experts:
Bruce Rogers, Don Von Dollen
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artwork by MCKIBILLO