Interview with Steven Collier

steve collierSteve Collier writes, speaks and consults widely on issues and technologies related to the smart grid. He has worked for more than forty years as a professional engineer, executive, consultant,
board member for energy, telecommunications, and consulting companies in the US and abroad, including Houston Lighting & Power, Power Technologies, Inc., Sandia National Labs, C. H. Guernsey & Company, Cap Rock Electric Cooperative, the Institute for Management Development and Change, Util-LINK LLC, and the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative. He has BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Houston and Purdue University respectively. He has served as chairman of the IEEE IAS Rural Electric Power Committee and as a member of the board of directors of IAS. Follow Steve on Twitter as @smartgridman and connect with him on LinkedIn and IEEE Collabratec.

In this interview, the presenter, Steve Collier, answers questions from his webinar, Part 2: The Growing Virtual Grid: Non-Wires Alternatives Emerge, originally presented on Nov 7, 2019.  Click here to view the Q&A from Part 1.  For more details regarding these questions, please view their webinar on-demand on the IEEE SG Resource Center.

Won’t non-wires alternatives be much harder to monitor and control and therefore be less reliable and secure?

Yes and no. A significant penetration of NWA will indeed make the grid more complex to monitor and control. At the same time, however, it can improve reliability and security. There is a relatively new industry term for this: a distributed energy resource management system (DERMS). Advances in digital information and communications technologies (ICT) make DERMS possible. Specifically high-speed (gigabit), two-way, digital communications, the best of which is fiber optics, plus machine intelligence (MI) and artificial intelligence (AI) will combine to enable optimization of efficiency, economy, sustainability, resilience, reliability, security, and quality of service. This kind of modern, intelligent grid which we generally refer to as smart grid, improves reliability and security. Even without advanced ICT & DERMS, decentralization of energy production, storage, and management improves reliability and security of supply to the end-use customer by reducing the concentration of event risk. For example, an outage for whatever reason of a major bulk power system generating plant or transmission line or transmission substation can result in interruption of service to thousands of customers. It is substantially more difficult to cause a simultaneous outage of many distributed energy resources. In addition, one cause of major outages, equipment failure, is often an intentional outage to prevent overloading utility lines and equipment. One of the benefits of NWA is the ability to reduce consumer consumption through demand side management, conservation voltage reduction, distributed generation, and distributed energy storage.

Could non-wires alternatives be owned and operated by third parties other than the utility or the customer?

Yes. Obviously, many NWA will be owned and operated by the utility customer. These might be on-site energy production, storage, management. They might also be conservation and energy efficiency measures which reduced or even displace the need to upgrade, replace, or construct traditional wires alternatives. The consumer may independently operate their DER, or they may elect to let their utility do it, sometimes in exchange for a financial benefit. There are a large and growing number of non-utility companies that are offering to not only sell and install, but even monitor and control NWA. They may sell the NWAs and monitoring and control services, or the consumer may share with the third party some of the financial benefits (e.g., lower electric bill, incentives from the utility.)

Where is the best current evaluation of battery systems?

There are a growing number of utilities and consumers, particularly commercial and industrial consumers who are testing batteries, or even using them to enhance reliability, save money, or use an electric vehicle. Here are several sources of information on battery energy storage testing and applications:

San Antonio CPS tests batteries to store solar power

National Renewable Energy Laboratory / Energy Systems Integration Facility

US Energy Information Administration (battery storage report)

International Renewable Energy Agency - Utility Scale Batteries - Innovation Landscape Brief

Wikipedia list of non pumped hydro energy storage projects

Edison Electric Institute - "Leading the Way: U.S. Electric Company Investment and Innovation in Energy Storage

How do customers specify the battery capacity limit that a utility may use? If I have RT solar with 1-2 days of battery storage for my home, I do not want the utility using my excess battery storage during an outage unless I agree.

The customer is not required to allow the utility to independently control their energy storage or utilize their stored energy. There will be a contractual agreement or tariff that sets out mutually acceptable terms and conditions.

DER (Utility Solar) can also be located on transmission

Yes. One definition of DER is anywhere downline from the bulk power generation, and a more constrained definition is anywhere downline from the bulk power transmission system. The most constrained definition is anywhere on the electric distribution system including on the customers’ side of their meters. Strictly speaking, NWA are anything that reduces or eliminates the need to use, upgrade, replace or add new traditional wires solutions (i.e., generation, transmission).

Can conservation and energy efficiency be considered to be non-wires alternatives?

Absolutely. Conservation and energy efficiency can reduce or eliminate the need to use, upgrade, replace, or install new traditional wires solutions (e.g., utility owned generation and transmission). Here’s something interesting to consider. Suppose that a customer implements an energy efficiency measure (e.g., replace all incandescent light bulbs with LEDs or replace an air conditioner compressor with a more efficient one). That has the same effect as putting in service a new generation plant with a  capacity equal to the reduction in energy demand operating during the hours that the energy consumption is reduced.

Isn't demand response just another name for curtailing load demand or having a generation source close to load?

Demand response is the reduction or interruption of electric energy consumption in response to a price signal (e.g., a utility price signal or request by the utility). It might include conservation, energy efficiency, load curtailment, turning on distributed generation, or using stored energy.

Do you see microgrids having a major impact on organizing and harnessing distributed generation by reducing megawatts of random power injected into grid export?

Microgrids are indeed having a rapidly growing, profound impact on the electric grid. By definition they are local “little grids” or a “mini utility grid” (i.e., local energy production and or storage and the distribution lines and equipment needed to supply electricity to a customer or even to the grid. They are capable of operating independently of the grid (i.e., non-synchronous) or in parallel with the grid (i.e., synchronous). They might be utilized as a backup to utility service, as an alternative to utility service, or as an extension of utility service. I don’t think that the primary goal or benefit of most microgrids is to reduce the randomness of energy from DER / NWA. They are most often deployed to improve reliability or quality of service, or optimize the utilization of DER / NWA for the customer’s benefit.

NWA brings new challenges to wires companies triggering new capital investments.  How can wires companies justify investments with the Public Utility Commission if NWAs start eroding their revenues?

This is one of the most controversial aspects of the advent of DER and NWA. Utilities are accustomed to being monopoly providers, selling electric energy at prices determined by their costs plus a reasonable profit or margin (i.e., cost plus). They have also been the electricity supplier of last resort, required to serve any customer upon demand subject to appropriate service and price regulations. This means that they have been required to construct, own, and operate traditional wires solutions to meet customer demand with acceptable reliability and quality of service. The advent of DER and NWA represents a defacto deregulation of the retail part of their business. A proliferation of non-utility DER and NWA reduces utility monopoly sales and revenues. It also displaces their ability to get regulatory approval to construct, own, operate new traditional wires solutions on which and earn a competitive return for their shareholders and/or generate a sufficient margin to satisfy their lenders. Furthermore, accommodating DER and NWA can actually increase the utility’s cost of doing business because they have to invest in appropriate monitoring and control for more complex grid operations. This transition from a regulated monopoly business to a competitive environment is difficult for the incumbent utilities. A growing number of incumbent utilities are venturing into the deployment of DER and NWA, not just for the cost and quality of service benefits, but also as a new source of revenues and profits or margins. This is a revolutionary change in the industry, much like what has happened with the monopoly telecommunications providers with the advent of cell phones and the Internet.

Can you comment on NERC CIP BES vs IOT, internet events cannot be managed as effectively, as segregated, protected systems.  An internet attack on the NEST thermostats of a couple thousand users might be just a effective as a strike on a major bulk generation or transmission.

There is no easy solution to grid security, whether it be physical or cyber. The U.S. National Energy Reliability Council (NERC) has defined the Bulk Electricity System (BES) and standards for Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP). As every aspect of our lives and business are more and more facilitated by the Internet of Things (IoT), the security of the Internet (i.e., cybersecurity) has become more and more important. And, as we discussed during the webinar, the electric utility grid is becoming increasingly interconnected with, even integrated with the IoT. That means that cybersecurity is ever more important. An Internet denial of service attack or virus or other compromise could have a disastrous effect on the electric grid. That is why governments, utilities, trade associations, and vendors are investing immense resources in cybersecurity. There is probably no easy, universal solution, it is a continuing battle. There is an inscription on the Library of Congress building in Washington, DC, USA: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” So goes the battle of cybersecurity. As the electric grid becomes more intelligent (“smart”) and more intertwined with the IoT, the price of reliability and security is eternal vigilance.

Can you talk about the challenge of the intermittent nature of Solar which is only available during the day and Wind generation which is 17-20% efficient?  How can we count on these for base load?

The efficiency of solar and wind is largely academic since the “fuel” is free. The only practical consideration is the capital investment and O&M costs for utilizing the free fuel. Solar and wind by themselves. You are correct that solar and wind are independently stochastic. Both are subject to diurnal and weather variations. However, these variations can be predicted to some extent. Also, a variety of NWA can help stabilize or “firm up” these intermittent resources, particularly energy storage, demand response, and geographic distribution of wind farms and solar arrays.


THANK YOU ALL FOR ATTENDING THE WEBINAR AND FOR YOUR GREAT QUESTIONS. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME ANYTIME ON LINKEDIN (stevenecollier) OR TWITTER (@smartgridman) with questions or comments or new ideas and developments.

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