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The Drivers Behind Successful Grid Modernization: Two Critical Roles and Data

The People and Strategies for Charting the Journey to Grid Modernization in the U.S.

By Randy Cough, Sr. Director of Grid Modernization

Every utility is keenly aware of the need to modernize the distribution grid. They’re faced daily with multiple grid challenges that impact safety, reliability, and efficient grid operations. Among these key challenges are aging infrastructure, unprecedented demand, the wide adoption of electric vehicles, smart buildings and cities, solar power which creates bi-directional power flows, and changing power purchasing dynamics. Beyond all of that, grid security is of national interest as cyberterrorists target critical infrastructure around the globe.  

The nature of power delivery is rapidly changing, and the challenges are becoming more complex. In my experience, there are two key roles at every utility that are essential to keeping the distribution grid safe and operational. They are also at the heart of grid modernization. Today’s operations directors and planning directors not only keep the lights on but do so while undertaking critical grid modernization initiatives. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the responsibility for success has never been more urgent.  

The operations director is at the front line of the grid. This critical person oversees all of the real-time operations of monitoring and managing the distribution grid through any condition including extreme weather and wildfire risk. Operations directors have day-to-day oversight of the functioning of the entire grid. They not only ensure efficient use of resources, equipment, and staff, but also maintain reliable grid operations through maintenance, repairs, and modernization activities.

The second critical utility team member is the planning director. Planning for new neighborhoods, large building construction, maintenance and replacement of older grid components, or upgrading the grid is a complicated and essential role within the utility. Capacity planning and maintaining new levels of grid security and reliability amid power demand increases and changing use patterns requires intimate understanding of grid functionality. Moreover, the ability to model future operations using historical and real-time data, analytics, and models requires a deep understanding of grid operations. Planners must envision a modern grid that’s capable of flexing to meet the dynamic nature of growing communities and industries–and they must assess and minimize any threats to safe and reliable service.  

In my technical solutions role, I work closely with both grid operations and planning directors, helping them to initiate successful grid modernization initiatives. With our utility partners, we focus on five general pillars of modernization. Critical to the success of each of these pillars is the gathering, analyzing, and modeling of system data. 

Pillar 1: Grid Modernization Goals 

Effective grid modernization starts with identifying achievable goals and determining which new technology investments can most efficiently be used with existing grid assets to improve power delivery and meet new grid needs. Our experience with utilities of all sizes reveals that augmenting existing grid assets with investments in new technologies significantly improves the performance of the grid.  

Modernization goals typically fall into several key areas: grid resilience and flexibility; modern approaches to maintenance; bi-directional flow and management of edge-generated energy from solar or other sources; and grid security. One of the keys to a successful grid modernization strategy is for utility stakeholders to agree on goals and priorities for their unique situation, service territory, and demand profile. 

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Pillar 2: Costs vs. Benefit Analysis 

Success in this pillar requires historical, real-time, and predictive data. Data and analytics underpin most decisions in grid management, but an accurate model of future grid operations, based on past, current and projected demand, is essential for the prioritization of grid modernization investments.  

Data from intelligent line sensors allows utilities to identify current limitations of grid assets—to the edge, and model future weak points. Today’s electrical infrastructure is aging with many components having been in service for 25-50+ years. Not only has technology advanced dramatically, but power use profiles have changed while demand has increased. Grid modernization needs and priorities are more effectively determined when they are based upon system data and analytics. Modernization projects are best modeled and analyzed through data, enabling smarter, more strategic cost/benefit decisions.    

Pillar 3: Defining Metrics  

Line sensor data and analytics also help operators and planners assess grid performance and design achievable metrics for grid modernization. Defining metrics can begin by simply tracking current outage frequency (SAIFI) and duration (SAIDI) metrics for specific distribution areas or situations. From this baseline, utilities can use data and analytics to begin to factor future demand and grid capacity, to create initial metrics.    

Demand and capacity are only part of the story. As part of a cost benefit analysis, grid modernization also requires modeling of affordability and cost. Using a combination of asset improvement and maintenance costs, staffing strategies, incorporation of distributed energy resources, and foreseeable growth in demand, utility planners can establish a rough cost and affordability baseline. The model can then be refined during the modernization process with incremental data and analytics.  

Pillar 4: Incremental Progress and Adjustment 

The modernization team, usually headed by the planning director and/or the operations director can chart a roadmap to modernization that fits the utility’s overall metrics, priorities, budget, and timeline. This modernization journey is incremental, and progress should be measured in years with long-term goals in sight.   

Using data and analytics from an increasingly intelligent grid enables the utility to adjust modernization efforts and milestones to changes in demand, evolution of technology, and actual costs and timelines associated with implementation. Making incremental, measurable progress, while the ultimate metrics remain unchanged ensures that the project stays on track.   

Pillar 5: The Cost of Progress 

As utilities asses their grid modernization strategy, data and analytics provide critical information about current grid performance, areas at risk of fault or failure, and areas where grid disturbances are common. Historical and real-time intelligent line sensor data and analytics provide prioritization for the steps of the modernization journey. Grid performance data reveals infrastructure that is nearing end-of-life, or showing risk of failure, and can be used to support investment decisions.   

More importantly, intelligent line sensor data and analytics show distribution system trends, which can underpin assumptions about future use and grid health. Data about energy flow, peak load periods and circumstances, or steadily increasing demand in certain communities, buildings or campuses can help the grid modernization team prioritize spend.    

Sentient Energy Provides the Data  

Modernization is a long, multi-phased evolution of our electrical grid systems. It’s rewarding that Sentient Energy’s technologies and solutions are at the heart of building a more intelligent, resilient and reliable grid infrastructure. Our intelligent line sensors, data science, and analytics capabilities are being used in the top public and private electric utilities in the U.S. to enable data-driven decision making, and we’re proud to be actively participating as these leaders chart their modernization journey.   

To learn more about how Sentient Energy grid edge technologies help utilities with grid modernization, safety, reliability, and efficiency, visit our Solutions page.

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