Key Trends Shaping the Next Era of Distribution Grid Infrastructure

Posted by on September 25, 2017

Jeff Walz, Global Solutions Manager, Grid Management

Jeff Walz has over 22 years of experience in engineering, product management and business development in the electric utility industry. At Silver Spring Networks Jeff leverages his deep technical knowledge on electric utility distribution to drive the global solution direction for the grid management line-of-business. This involves leading company initiatives to enable utility use cases such as FLISR, CVR/IVVC, demand response, distributed energy resource (DER) management, & outage management. Prior to Silver Spring, Jeff was the Product Manager for Siemens, responsible for strategic product roadmap and business development for Advanced Distribution Management Systems. Before Siemens, Jeff held various engineering and management roles with Cannon Technologies, Inc. and Cooper Power Systems. Jeff earned his B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering with focus on Power Systems from Iowa State University and is a registered professional engineer.

What’s driving change in the distribution grid?

A: Change is being driven in three areas: Evolving customer expectations, new technologies, and public policy. The result is a migration from isolated systems with a single energy source to dynamic networks with a diverse array of energy resources and complex power flows. At the same time, you have customers transitioning from passive consumers to active participants on the grid.

Electric utilities are working toward a smart energy infrastructure, although progress varies across regions and utilities. Progressive utilities are focusing efforts to establish a customer-centric system hardened against severe weather and protected from cyber and physical security threats.

The three driving factors most concerning to utilities are leading to two overriding trends. The first is decentralization, which is characterized by a proliferation of DER, two-way power flows, and islanded networks. The second is digitalization, highlighted by intelligent meters and sensors, and enabled by communications with pervasively deployed automation devices. Another important aspect of digitalization includes a transition to pushing more intelligence to the grid edge with distributed compute platforms and peer-to-peer automation schemes.

Leading utilities have moved to adopt technology-focused approaches to modernize the grid. In response to changing regulatory environments, they’re moving to make the grid more resilient and DER enabled. These are the industry trends that are shaping the next era of the distribution grid infrastructure.

How can you accelerate your grid modernization efforts with a unified technology solution including support for distributed intelligence at the grid edge?

A: The critical thing is choosing the right communications network architecture. A unified technology solution provides a single platform that connects multiple applications and many device types across a utility’s distribution network. This approach allows utilities to leverage granular data from devices to optimize real-time grid operations while improving asset management and planning. This allows network operators to address a multitude of use cases such as storm response, renewable integration, analytics (load monitoring, voltage monitoring) and more.

A unified platform reduces the cost and complexity of supporting grid transformation. Common components and toolsets optimize resources. And a common infrastructure means you can leverage physical infrastructure investments across metering, monitoring, automation, and IoT applications.

How can you maximize your investment as more, varied assets are introduced to your evolving network?

A: Many utilities have already made huge investments in AMI networks. But as they shift their focus to expanding their grid modernization efforts, the advantages of an open, scalable and extensible platform should soon become apparent. Using such a platform, utilities can quickly and easily deploy multiple smart grid applications over a common infrastructure, including advanced metering, distribution automation, direct load control, voltage management, and more.

Leveraging the network to address multiple applications reduces monetary investment and helps to strengthen the network. Adding battery backed infrastructure and general hardening of the network in support of high-value, critical operations creates an expanded, more resilient canopy capable of accommodating many applications on the same network.

In addition, forward and backward compatibility of this infrastructure allows utilities to seamlessly connect new devices and expand infrastructure without the need to replace existing assets.

Sensors and IoT devices are being pervasively deployed across the distribution grid. What does this mean for security?

A: The Internet of Things is growing at a very fast pace. Gartner forecasts that the number of connected IoT devices will grow to more than 20 billion by 2020. Smart, connected IoT devices and sensors on the network present new challenges that utility companies must manage to prevent and control security breaches at the device level. It’s important for organizations to recognize that as business models are changing to better support the next-generation distribution grid, it’s most crucial to protect grid assets against unauthorized access and hackers, along with protecting consumer safety and data in this environment of increased cybersecurity threats.

This means a set of protections must be built within every level of the communications network, and even on every device itself. Silver Spring understands that security is paramount in any smart grid deployment and has taken an architectural approach by embedding military grade security throughout the devices, software operations and network transactions across the smart grid infrastructure. As IoT devices become commonplace across the distribution grid, it’s the responsibility of utilities to choose a solution provider that can best address and adapt to their organization’s operational and security needs.