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How valuable is the grid? Let’s start counting the ways

Is the grid the problem? Is the grid our solution? Is the grid going away? Is the grid going to be the be-all center of the future utility? These are the questions we’re all wrestling with in the industry at the moment, and Raiford Smith, VP, Energy Technology & Analytics for Entergy discussed a few possibilities in “Building a customer-centric grid in the age of DER” session at Oracle Industry Connect 2017.

Smith started with the four trends he sees underlying our current utilities industry culture transformation. First is the larger, faster adoption of distributed energy resources as a whole—that it’s becoming a smarter economic possibility every day.

Second is the proliferation of sensors to get us all better info about that transformation, with the third being more movement of the data tying the details of that transformation together.

Between the third and fourth trend is where Smith inserts a version of Metcalfe’s Law.

As items and widgets and tech on the grid becomes “more commonly coupled, the more value the grid has in and of itself,” Smith noted.

This leads to Smith’s last trend: big data analytics. And more of it.

“Once you have the data, you can better manage the grid, which is a cycle, really,” he added.  “Better managing the grid leads to more sensors, more assets and then more analytics, too.”

But to really have the value proposition come to fruition, Smith sees one big key: a flexible grid that can handle items like DER. So, that valuable grid won’t be the one-way push of power we used to have (and still mostly currently have). We’re talking about an all new version of the grid—but we’re not dumping the grid concept entirely.  Smith titled the future grid, in fact, “a value-created network.”

Smith warned of one cultural downfall to the future of this shiny, new grid concept, though, and that’s the current use of the popular use case.

“Our management style is to say: I have a problem. I’ll issue an RFP and buy a widget to solve it. This is flawed thinking: being focused on the one problem of the use case rather than thinking about multiple problem, a family of them, even, and solving that larger group,” Smith added.

“You have to balance, of course,” he added.  “But I would argue that a utility shouldn’t go into an RFP just to solve an instant problem.”

Another area of new thinking to get to that new grid: listening to the customer voice.

“The customer is the rationale for why we’re all here,” Smith said.  “We ask them if they are satisfied with their service, but we don’t ask them what they want. Our planning cycle is backwards. We go with a given load forecast and ways to support that load. We don’t do the reverse: Customers want this. What do I need the distribution system to do to make this happen and then how do we adjust the transmission/generation upstream to support this?”

So, new thinking and new planning are how we get to that new grid, but Smith, at least, doesn’t see that grid disappearing from the utility equation.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be completely without a grid because being interconnected is more valuable than not,” he concluded.

Read all the insights from Oracle Industry Connect 2017:

Come join us for the next Oracle Industry Connect. Save the date for 2018: April 9-11 in NYC. 

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