The Infrastructure Bill Could be a Game Changer for Electric Co-Ops and Publicly Owned Power Utilities
March 1st, 2022
Today’s Power Grid Challenges and Tomorrow’s Opportunities
Meeting today’s complex power delivery challenges while preparing for the new demands of a modernized grid is a monumental task for all electric utilities — perhaps even more so for rural electric cooperatives and smaller publicly owned power utilities.
Historically, many electric co-ops and smaller public power utilities have been at a disadvantage when it comes to affording grid resilience, reliability, and modernization initiatives.
Unlike their larger public and investor-owned counterparts, the investments needed to improve, harden, and enable flexibility on an aging distribution system have been out of reach for some smaller public power utilities.
But that has changed. For the first time in almost a century, the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) gives electric co-ops and public power utilities of all sizes the opportunity to invest significantly in their distribution grids. Funds made available through the infrastructure bill will help power utilities to make their grids more resilient, reliable, and flexible.
IIJA will make it easier for co-ops and public power utilities to address multiple distribution grid needs, including:
- Better reliability and power quality
- Grid flexibility and power efficiency
- New demand patterns associated with the rapidly growing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs)
- Integration of distributed energy resources (DERs) such as rooftop solar and wind turbines and related bi-directional power flow
- Grid hardening projects for resilience
The question is — which areas of grid investment and associated initiatives should rural electric cooperatives and public power utilities focus on first?
Power Grid Investment Priorities
Grid Reliability Remains a Top Priority
Reliability and customer satisfaction will always be a top priority for power utilities of every size. A recent J.D. Power Customer Satisfaction Survey of residential electric customers and members revealed this is especially the case for electric co-operatives. But consistent achievement of reliable power delivery becomes more difficult with aging grid infrastructure.
Automation and control technologies and grid visibility solutions are two examples of grid investment categories that help utilities achieve enhanced reliability and customer satisfaction.
For instance, intelligent line sensors provide visibility benefits and insights including fault detection and location, and interruption and disturbance analysis. Each of these solutions is aimed at helping utilities reduce customer minutes interrupted (CMI) — a key reliability metric.
Flexibility Grows in Significance
Another pressing grid priority for most utilities is the reliable, efficient integration of electric vehicles and distributed energy resources. Adoption of DERs and EVs is not just increasing, it’s quickly accelerating.
As the demand for PV solar and electric vehicles grows, so too does the need to accommodate changing demand patterns and bi-directional power flow. Grid flexibility that supports and maintains reliability, power quality, and efficiency is increasingly essential for cooperatives and publicly owned power utilities as they integrate EVs and DERs like rooftop solar, wind turbines, and battery storage.
Enhanced Resilience to Meet Increasingly Volatile Weather Events
Grid hardening and resilience initiatives, such as asset replacement and strategic undergrounding, are two more areas of critical focus for many power utilities.
A consistent increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather and drought has a growing number of utilities evaluating the best approach to grid hardening for reduced outages and wildfire risk mitigation. Infrastructure bill funds will make these grid investment projects possible for more power utilities.
How Will IIJA Funds Be Distributed?
While a significant portion of the IIJA’s funding is dedicated to modernizing grids operated by energy co-operatives and municipal utilities, these power utilities will need to navigate several funding parameters. The programs focused on the electric distribution grid are prioritized based on a project’s demonstrated ability to improve system reliability, resilience, and flexibility.
Projects selected will most likely be ones that provide local job creation, provide benefit to historically underserved communities, and can be quickly deployed. In addition, there will be other requirements focused on eligibility, size, matching requirements, and funding caps.
Automation and SCADA projects often come to mind first for power utilities looking at resilience and reliability grid investments. But they may not always be the most feasible or cost-effective approach to quickly gaining benefits across broader portions of their distribution systems.
For instance, a funding cap that is equal to the sum of the last three years of modernization costs would restrict requested funding aimed at a large-scale SCADA implementation if a smaller power company has not met previous years’ spending requirements.
While funding caps may constrain broad rollouts of higher-cost control assets for co-ops and smaller public power utilities, an excellent option exists for lower cost solutions that can scale with available funding over time.
Specifically, it may be more cost effective and broadly beneficial for utilities to improve circuit visibility with intelligent line sensors. The highly accurate, real-time data these line sensors provide offer insights that can drive reliability improvements across broader portions of distribution systems than a small number of new control assets would impact.
The following three use cases highlight how line sensors for near real-time data and optimized circuit visibility can be more cost effective and provide a faster time-to-value for improving grid reliability, resilience, and flexibility:
Top Grid Investment Use Cases for Reliability, Resilience, and Flexibility
1. Fault Location and Grid Reliability
Quickly locating and resolving events that cause service interruptions, is a challenge for every utility, regardless of size, and one that directly impacts reliability metrics.
Expensive SCADA-enabled devices such as reclosers are not always the best answer to this reliability issue. Improving visibility with line sensors to more points in a circuit that optimizes both automated and non-automated assets can be a more effective approach to enhanced reliability.
Intelligent line sensors such as the MM3 and UM3+ detect and report fault current locations and magnitudes, enabling dispatchers and engineers to reduce patrol distances and restoration times by up to 88% of the utility’s index average. For the cost of just one 3-phase SCADA-enabled recloser, a utility can install 21 intelligent line sensors around their system, providing many visibility points.
2. Emergency Preparedness and Grid Resilience
In addition to reducing the time it takes to respond to fault events and outages, the highly granular, real-time data from intelligent line sensors provides conductor load information which becomes critical in extreme weather and high wildfire risk scenarios.
Unlike traditional SCADA, these sensors offer greater flexibility in preemptive switching that prepares feeders and laterals for demand changes. This enhanced switching capability also reduces weather and wildfire threat related interruption times by providing a clearer picture of where circuits can be safely meshed to restore power.
3. DER and EV Adoption and Grid Flexibility
Grids everywhere are faced with increasing needs for integration of DERs and EVs, each with potential positive and negative impacts to grid reliability and resilience.
New demand patterns, bi-directional flow, and power quality issues create challenges for aging grid infrastructure. Intelligent line sensors capture energy contribution trends that SCADA-enabled devices do not, providing necessary data required for effective EV and DER forecasting and planning.
Not only do intelligent line sensors deliver fast time-to-value grid modernization benefits that increase distributions system reliability, resilience, and flexibility for utilities. They are also quick and easy to deploy, saving on valuable crew time and associated installation costs.
For information on how Sentient Energy helps address electric distribution grid reliability, resilience, and flexibility with our grid edge control technologies, overhead and underground line sensing solutions, and grid analytics, please contact us or visit our website Solutions page.