The power of data and creative thinking can help solve the energy transition’s biggest challenges, according to keynote speakers at DISTRIBUTECH International 2023.
The largest DISTRIBUTECH ever, which launched on Feb. 7 in San Diego, California, began with an acknowledgement of the steep challenges facing the electric utility industry. The proliferation of distributed energy resources, as well as escalating risks tied to climate change, directly impact safety and reliability.
Tom Dietrich, president and CEO of Itron, said the grid is at an inflection point. The answer to complexity lies with the power of real-time data, which can an enable a more dynamic grid by expanding visibility.
“When you’ve got visibility, you can understand the capability,” Dietrich said.
The capability is evolving to include customer electric vehicles injecting energy back into the grid. Utilities and their customers are interacting in unprecedented ways, and adapting to that changing landscape will require collaboration and trust.
“Solving this distributed energy resource problem in a fully-optimised way is going to take a level of trust between all of us and the customers that use our products,” Dietrich added. “That level of trust is something that we have to work to garner in the years ahead.”
The transformation is already well-underway at utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric.
SDG&E CEO Caroline Winn said she is constantly thinking about how to achieve net zero while maintaining safety, reliability, and affordability. SDG&E was the first major utility in California to achieve and surpass the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.
Winn said the utility’s path to net zero is outlined by the “3 D’s”: Decarbonisation, diversification, and digitalisation.
Decarbonisation prioritises the deployment of solar, wind and energy storage. Diversification fills in the resource adequacy gaps by investing in clean hydrogen and carbon capture technologies. Digitalisation makes it all work.
“Let’s not only seize the day, but also seize the data,” Winn said.
Data gives SDG&E the equivalent of a crystal ball, Winn added.
The utility runs millions of simulations every night to assess potential outcomes for storms or wildfires to then deploy resources where they’re needed most.
Every morning, every SDG&E employee receives a wildfire threat report built off those simulations.
“These types of advancements have been largely why we have not been the cause of a catastrophic wildfire since 2007,” Winn said.
Linda Stevens, chief strategy officer at OATI, said utilities are asking more critical questions about the impact of the energy transition on their system, and that “cities are experiencing the same transition.”
Stevens noted that the intersection of cities and utilities is becoming more pronounced as cities look to achieve their own sustainability and resiliency goals.
Cities want to be better stewards of resources and improve public safety. Data is a critical component to achieving those goals, she said.
Maybe the biggest threat of all to the electric utility industry, though, is the status quo. Failure to innovate and evolve will leave utilities vulnerable to risks magnified by climate change.
Duncan Wardle, the former head of innovation and creativity at Disney, urged electric utility industry leaders to embrace child-like curiosity and creativity to take on gargantuan challenges.
He said the barriers that plague growth and advancement in the workplace — lack of resources, fear of failure, company culture — can be overcome by replacing “No, but” responses with “yes, and.”
This infectious collaboration can lead to the most impactful ideas, Wardle said.