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European Utility Week serves as an excellent venue to obtain more global industry perspectives than what is typically found in most North American-based industry events. In the case of the 2014 event, it served to reinforce the conclusion that there are really three global metatrends in play for electric utilities. Three recorded interviews that I conducted during this conference highlight these metatrends, and some of the impacts to utilities.

First, the distributed generation (DG) genie is out of the bottle –centralized generation is no longer the only energy architecture. DG is one component of distributed energy resources (DER). The newly released Smart Grid Dictionary 6th Edition defines DER as Grid-connected or standalone generation, energy storage, or negawatt assets that are deployed in the distribution grid. DER assets can substitute for or supplement grid-supplied power. Jochen Kreuss, Head of Smart Grids Initiative, ABB discussed the challenges that DG, whether in the form of renewables, aggregated assets within a microgrid, virtual power plant (VPP), or independent asset creates for utilities in this interview.  He also noted that communications infrastructures must be capable of helping utilities manage large numbers of devices. This is a critically important metatrend impact. The Smart Grid requires dedicated bi-directional M2M networks that can deliver the necessary security, reliability and speed to support bi-directional electricity transactions.

The second metatrend is the growth of big data and the impacts to utility operations. The four Vs of big data – volume, variety, velocity, and veracity – are stressing the existing siloed operations and legacy solutions common to utilities. At the same time, these asset-intensive businesses continue to add more equipment that pumps out more data, exacerbating the problem. Peter Sigenstam, Vice President and Head of E.ON Innovation Centre Distribution and Daryl Rolley, Executive Vice President, Global Sales for Ventyx, an ABB company, discuss how E.ON’s proof of concept project called Smart Grid Control Center creates more flexible grid operations for both generation and demand in this interview.  This project finds inspiration for data management optimization in industries that range from consumer goods and financial services to automotive manufacturing (particularly robotics) and oil and gas operations. As one example, E.ON recognizes that the retail sector has extensive experience in creating customized suggestions to cross-sell or upsell customers, which could help this utility tailor its service offerings to customers.

The third and final metatrend is the rapid culmination of the impacts the first two trends exert on utilities. Xavier Moreau, Strategic Marketing Director for Schneider Electric reflected on these trends and other important drivers that are triggering fundamental transformations within utilities, as well as in how utilities view and value the grid edge in this interview.   What is particularly interesting is the combinatorial nature of some DER – it can include different forms of energy (think thermal as well as electrical), and controllable loads that are the subject of demand response (DR) solutions and services. That points to additional complexities to microgrid and other DER management as well as managing the data produced by these new assets. He mentioned an ongoing project with DONG Energy focused on island microgrids that integrate very high levels of renewables and incorporate data from sources including weather to provide reliable power. Utilities will have to become smart too, in terms of re-engineering processes, reskilling employees, and revising corporate cultures to accommodate de-carbonized and DER-based electricity grids.

The good news is that while these metatrends are common to utilities around the world, some utilities are finding the opportunities, and not just the challenges created by these trends.  These utilities are actively deploying pilots or full-scale implementations of DER and/or microgrids, exploring the use of sophisticated analytics to aid decision-making, and leveraging grid operations solutions for proactive, not reactive responses.

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