The Big Switch

Large utilities are seeking to convert the grid to accommodate smaller, smarter power sources.

Change is hard. Just ask anyone still holding onto a DVD — or worse, a VHS tape — collection.

But sometimes a significant advancement in technology, culture or human knowledge can transform our thinking. And then — sooner for some, later for others — we switch from our old way of doing things to a new and more efficient way.

That, in a nutshell, is what is occurring along the electric distribution grid, where the convergence of stringent environmental regulations, changes in how we consume electricity and a proliferation of alternate, distributed energy resources are leading utilities to rethink where and how to power the grid — developing smart energy strategies for the future.

Until recently, the approach was largely uniform. Power generation was concentrated in large, coal-fired plants, often operated by local utilities and located far from population centers.

“For more than 100 years, the grid has been the country’s largest continuously operating machine,” says Brad Jensen, an electrical engineer at Burns & McDonnell. “If you added a new customer, you built a line. If equipment failed, you fixed it. But the system itself remained essentially unchanged.”

But that is changing. Technology and analytics are making the grid smarter and more flexible, and forward-looking providers are looking for ways to modernize their distribution networks to squeeze more value from them, he says.

In recent years, an evolution has begun, transitioning from large-gigawatt, centralized power plants located far from customers to smaller, more localized generation, including networks of rooftop solar panels and other renewables, storage, and smaller power sources that are pooled to meet demand. These distributed energy resources (DERs) are starting to be incorporated with new, more efficient natural gas-fueled peak units that can be ramped up quickly to serve as backup. Sometimes they are conceived as stand-alone microgrids as well.

“For more than 100 years, the grid has been the country’s largest continuously operating machine.” Brad Jensen

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