The Modern Grid: Connecting People to Power

on November 12, 2014 at 11:30 AM

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As society becomes more and more dependent on technology and Mother Nature continues to deliver dramatic weather events across all parts of the globe, utilities must develop and deploy newer and more advanced grid technologies that can proactively respond to potential impacts and recover quickly from outages. But, is grid modernization only about the technologies utilities employ or is it also about the relationship between utilities and their consumers?

When Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, utilities were not only challenged by the physical damage caused to their infrastructures, they were also faced with the immediate need to communicate with consumers on when and how power would be restored. So, what did utilities learn? They must continue to invest in technologies that make the grid more resilient, but they also need to establish effective communications programs to help keep consumers informed during good times and bad.

It’s About the Technology

Although every utility will have different goals for grid modernization and their plans on how to accomplish those goals may differ, the objective is the same – invest in grid modernization technologies and integrate them to improve grid reliability and resiliency.

This modernization plan may include the introduction of any combination of the five core components of a modern grid – smart meters and an advanced metering infrastructure, a geographic information system, an outage management system, a distributed management system and distribution automation capabilities.

Leveraging the capabilities of all of these technologies will improve information flow across the electrical grid and give utilities the power of big data and analytics to try to prevent outages and, when outages occur, ensure rapid outage detection and restoration.

No, it’s About the Consumer

As utilities modernize their grids with advanced technologies, additional developments occurring in parallel, such as demand response programs, affect the average consumer. This puts the onus on utilities to gain consumer understanding and acceptance of grid modernization plans by establishing comprehensive, two-way communications programs to move forward with larger-scale deploy­ments and consumer-empowered demand response programs.

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Communication with consumers also becomes paramount before, during and after extreme weather events and utilities can deliver real value to consumers by communicating effectively on how to prepare for and react to power outages. This could be through traditional channels such as phone calls or digital channels such as email, texting or social media. Then, when outages do occur, consumers are prepared to communicate effectively with their utility to identify outage locations to help restoration efforts.

Education & Acceptance – The Keys to Understanding

Consumer education and acceptance are essential keys for unlocking the eco­nomic and societal benefits that a modern grid can deliver to an energy-hungry society. With well thought-out and imple­mented communication pro­grams, utilities can plant the seeds that will help consumers comprehend the actual work­ings of a modern grid and how they can partner with their utility to help get the lights back on. And consumers will need to accept and embrace the concept that realizing the benefits of a modern grid will require an open, collaborative effort on their part — and that their participation is as much an integral part as any piece of technology.

As utilities communicate with consumers, they’ll also have the added benefit of educating themselves about what their consumers want, need and demand. Using consumer surveys, segmentation analysis, voluntary participation programs, informational notices enclosed with utility bills, and public education sessions, utilities and consumers can learn from one another how to better formulate future deployment plans, more easily identify and focus on areas requiring improvement, and finely tune pilot plans already in place to facilitate larger, more effective grid modernization efforts.

Linking Regulators to the Grid Modernization Effort

While dialogue between utilities and consumers progresses, regulators will also need to be included in the discussion to ensure that the proper regulatory backing is put in place to support grid modernization efforts. Regulatory support, such as a move away from the need to sell more electricity to increase revenues, will be required to ensure that utilities are compensated for conservation programs that meet electrical demand while selling less electricity.

Connecting People to their Power

As utilities invest in grid modernization technologies, consumers may not see dramatic differences in their everyday lives. But their voice can serve as a guide for utilities and regulators in steering a modern grid to greater success. By getting involved in two-way communication programs, actively participating in pilot programs, and embracing grid modernization as a long-term solution, consumers can directly impact the future of the power grid.

John D. McDonald is director of technical strategy and policy development for GE’s Digital Energy business. He earned his B.S. and M.A. in power engineering at Purdue University and his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley. He is past president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES), an IEEE PES distinguished lecturer, board chair of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative and active in the National Institute of Science and Technology’s Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, among many other affiliations. He is based in Atlanta, Georgia.