Keeping the lights on: Insights into the transmission and distribution industry
When you flick on a light switch, you just expect it to work. When you pre-heat your oven, you anticipate that it will get hot. When you pick up the phone, you expect it to dial. In the transmission and distribution industry, it’s all about up-time and, quite literally, keeping the lights on.
Bill McEvoy, Industry Principal for transmission, distribution, and distributed energy resources at OSIsoft, is no stranger to this notion. With over 34 years of experience working in the utility and information technology space, Bill has a strong understanding of best practices in the ever-evolving space.
What are some of the challenges facing the Transmission & Distribution industry?
First, trying to drive the grid from traditional source generation to a more distributed resources approach is proving to be a major challenge. “Power flows where demand is, and in the past, we knew we had to set sources to meet what the forecast was, and we could plan accordingly,” explains McEvoy. “As units tripped off, you had measures in place to meet those needs and ensure the grid resiliency was there.” However; with new intermittent resources which are highly distributed, it creates chaos at the planning level.
Second, because of the new dynamic created by distributed resources (DERs), regulatory agencies are trying to figure out how to handle the cost recovery needed to enable the grid to handle DERs. Trying to balance the regulatory process and approvals with keeping energy flowing for customers can be a tricky dance.
How has COVID19 changed things?
The enduring global pandemic has greatly affected how utilities plan and forecast peak demand. With more people at home and large office buildings, arenas, and restaurants uninhabited, it’s changed when peak demand times are, which can make it difficult to forecast demand. This will ultimately hurt future investment models, as lower demand will mean less funds invested in the future.
Additionally, COVID19 has made mutual aid difficult because of travel restrictions. When storms hit in North America, utilities will often engage in mutual aid, meaning that contractor crews will be deployed where there’s need, whether it’s in their home state or not. With COVID19 travel restrictions, contractors may not be able to enter certain states at a moment’s notice as they have before, making planning difficult. “In critical areas like dispatching and operations, they’re doing everything they can to isolate people out of control centers, from longer shifts to smaller crews in various locations, trying to minimize exposure across the board.”
How can technology help address some of these problems?
Between distributed resources and distributed teams, remote operations management is huge. Real-time data is critical to allowing teams to operate seamlessly completely remote. From field supervisors to management, real-time usage and outage data is key to making decisions that ultimately impact the consumer.
Edge technology is extremely useful as well, as the more data you can get from sensor on the edge/at sub-stations, the less you need to rely on a physical crew for. Cloud technology is enabling online sharing both within and outside of a company, meaning less in-person meetings and more collaboration.
Does the industry tend to be an early or late adopter of technology?
Generally, late, says McEvoy. There’s a great deal of concern around perception management, given the risks and safety issues that surround utilities. Because of this, the industry is cautious when exploring new technologies, and prefers smaller pilots as opposed to massive overhauls.
By 2025, what changes do you expect to see?
McEvoy outlined several key changes he anticipates seeing in the industry in the next five years. First, more mature Distributed Energy Resource models and technology surrounding them as business models continue to change to better serve a changing grid. He also predicts that grid-edge technology will lead more than cloud technology, and utilities will push back on moving critical control systems to the cloud due to availability and security concerns.
As power demand continues to change, companies much remain agile and adaptable. Agility starts with having access to the right data at the right time, and the PI System makes it possible. Whether managing incident response, avoiding shutdowns, or implementing condition based asset management to improve asset health, a foundational data management strategy is key.