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Intermittent Power Generation Disrupts Traditional Utility Services

Tom Hoblitzell | | September 18, 2018

The Paris Climate Accord of 2015 marked the moment in time when the world’s energy generation industries began shifting their development focus away from fossil fuels and toward renewable resources.

As a result, more than ever before, utility systems are struggling to manage the often growing swell of energy flowing into the grid from renewable sources like wind and solar generators. While traditional utility management systems aren’t usually designed to handle these challenges, today’s future-focused software and programming capacities are helping them regulate the fluctuations while also reducing their costs and improving their efficiencies.

Utility World Run Amok

For decades, utility companies ran a standard business practice of generating electricity, selling it to customers, then generating more. The one-way flow of electricity made it easy for them to provide the service:

  • Consistent usage across the sector provided stability in both resources and revenues. Utilities could use predetermined revenue predictions to estimate the costs of current and future infrastructure improvements.
  • Utilities could also set prices based on their known costs (fuel, transportation, maintenance, etc.) and modify those as needed, independently from consumer inputs.
  • Long-term regulatory schematics changed only rarely, so maintenance activities were usually the only metric that required reporting.

Today, however, the growing demand and multiplying opportunities for cleaner energy sources are disrupting those traditional utility business practices:

  • For the first time since the development of the power grid, utility customers now have an option as to where they get their electricity supply. The public utility company now has competition and customers are looking for alternatives to the traditional power supply service.
  • The resulting matrix of installed roof- and wall-mounted solar panels and freestanding wind-driven turbines reduces customer consumption of grid-supplied electricity, which, in turn, reduces the utility company’s revenues.
  • At the same time, those home-grown energy producers are often also feeding power back into the grid, often at times when it’s not needed, which causes fluctuations in demand that plays havoc with load balancing.
  • Further, in many communities, governments are changing the rules that govern the utility structure. In these areas, utility companies must now monitor the inflow of electricity generated by their customers and either reduce their utility bill accordingly or pay them for their contribution to the public grid (or both).

In short, standard utility practices are no longer sufficient to manage the increasingly complex matrix that today’s utility grid is becoming.

Technology Specifically Designed for Utility Use

Fortunately, just as the grid is evolving, so is the technological capacity to address these emerging concerns. Today’s utility-facing programming and technologies provide the tools every utility needs to take on these new challenges:

 

  • Sensors installed in and on equipment measure and report fluctuations in energy flow and demand in real time, giving operators insights into how customers are accessing the services.
  • Analytics programming culls system-wide data flows to predict load demands, giving operators the parameters to shift loads during peak periods to reduce the likelihood of a failure due to excess demand.
  • Other sensors track system operability, recording unexpected changes in flow or usage, both of which can signal a failing part or system.
  • Programming can automate data collection related to reverse energy flow coming from distributed sources. When connected directly to those sources, the software automatically calculates the regulatory requirements and bills the customer appropriately.

Without the data and insights provided by today’s cutting-edge, utility-facing technologies, utility companies would not have the tools they need to evolve into the flexible power supply managers that tomorrow’s energy-consuming customers demand.

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