Utility leaders understand that the grid is changing. With more distributed energy resources (DERs), a greater push for zero-carbon generation and an increased focus on economic development and local resilience, the grid of the future will look very different from the grid of the past. These changes are inevitable. There are communities today that source nearly 100% of their electricity from local, renewable resources while integrating thousands of distributed devices. But there are many more communities where the energy transition has not yet arrived, where it may seem like these changes won't happen for at least another decade.
In communities where change is just beginning, co-op and muni leaders are asking themselves: which investments should be made today and which should be earmarked for the future?
Tools for the Transition
At Camus Energy, we partner with community utilities at all stages of the energy transition, delivering software tools that help them manage change. When we talk with co-op and muni leaders, all have acknowledged the enormous impact that the energy transition will have on their grids. They understand the system is changing quickly and are actively exploring which tools to leverage and which investments to make today.
Most of these conversations start with questions about managing DERs, especially EV charging stations, local solar plus storage, smart thermostats and water heaters. While orchestrating these devices will be an important responsibility in the future, the utilities with whom we've partnered over the past several years have consistently identified a different set of investments as the best place to start.
A "No-Regrets" Investment
Bolstering real-time grid visibility has proven to offer a high return on investment for utilities whose grids are evolving, delivering immediate benefits and preparing operators for the future.
Utilities like Kit Carson Electric Cooperative and Holy Cross Energy have integrated SCADA, smart meter telemetry, interconnection records, GIS systems and other grid data alongside information from third-party devices and public data sources. With these systems linked, their operations teams are now leveraging prior investments in advanced metering and member programs to provide meaningful cost savings through peak shaving and the alleviation of backflow near distribution-connected solar.
The same investments in integrative software and monitoring instrumentation have made it easier for grid operators to monitor change and understand what's happening in their system. They see new devices appear as they interconnect, understand available flexibility for load shifting, and can quickly identify the causes of abnormal grid conditions. By investing in visibility, these utilities have simultaneously laid the foundation that will allow them to manage increased variation in demand and generation and the complexities of bidirectional power flows.
With both immediate and long-term benefits, advancements in grid visibility have proven to be "no-regrets" investments.
Where Patience Pays Off
There are other investment opportunities, however, where it may be more prudent for utilities to wait. For many co-ops and munis, control and orchestration of distributed energy resources via a DER management system (DERMS) is one such example.
If utility leaders are to craft DER-related programs, interconnection rules and rates that benefit all members, they must understand how distributed resources are likely to impact the system. From our experience, most co-ops and munis lack sufficient grid visibility to monitor the circuit-level impacts of DERs. Without that, operators are hard-pressed to identify the unexpected consequences of DER operation or to anticipate how grid conditions will change with more devices. Leveraging DERs to meet system goals becomes very difficult when operators can't see how those resources are impacting local conditions.
For utilities with rapidly increasing DER adoption, there is no choice but to improve visibility in parallel with learning to orchestrate DERs. But for the majority of co-ops and munis, DER penetration is not significant enough yet to make direct control necessary for reliability. In these communities, utilities can prioritize investing in visibility first and be better prepared to add control capabilities as local DER adoption increases. This gives operators the tools they need to effectively integrate and orchestrate distributed devices.
As the role of DERs on the grid increases, a solid foundation of grid awareness provides a basis for integrating DERMS functionality and enables the development of more advanced management structures like incentive rates and real-time pricing. Beginning from the data gives co-ops and munis the tools they need to prepare for these bigger changes.
How early is too early?
Preparation for change cannot begin early enough. Starting small and getting comfortable with basic elements of data and device integration better prepares grid operators for more complex challenges. For co-ops and munis with many DERs, the solution is evident: near-term investment in visibility and control can help manage rapid change. But for co-ops and munis with few DERs today and limited resources, the best investment is in tools to understand the changes on their grids. These provide immediate benefits and enable operators to add control of electric vehicles, batteries and other devices as members adopt them.
The challenge of the energy transition is less about managing DERs or renewable generation specifically, and more about managing your grid as you go through the process of change. That means equipping your team with the tools they'll need as new technologies come online. If you invest in better visibility and situational awareness now, it will make it easier to assess how your local system is changing and to know when the time is right for you to make subsequent investments.
For co-op and muni leaders, the experiences of those who've started to transform their utilities offer valuable lessons that you can take home to your community. Download our free Co-op & Muni Leaders' Guide to Managing a Changing Grid to learn more.