Astrid's Updates

Why Utilities Need Grid Orchestration Today

Post by
Astrid Atkinson
Last Updated: 
January 10, 2024

As the penetration of electric vehicles (EVs), solar, customer-sited batteries, and other distributed energy resources (DERs) increases, utility leaders are feeling the pressure to actively manage the impacts of these local resources. 

To mitigate the growing risk of over-voltages, reverse power flows, and harmful grid impacts, many utilities are deploying Distributed Energy Resource Management Systems, or DERMS, to monitor and control DERs. But a DERMS alone is an incomplete solution – not fully capable of integrating DER management into a distribution utility’s core operations.

In a recent explainer, I detailed the relevant shortcomings of DERMS and how a new class of utility software systems—grid orchestration platforms—address these shortcomings by leveraging grid awareness and DERMS integrations to actively manage DER impacts.

In this companion post, I address a question that utilities often ask me: Why do I need to invest in grid orchestration today when the large-scale impacts of DERs are still a few years off?

Proactive is the name of the game

Utility leaders  are rapidly drawing up and refreshing roadmaps for how to manage their grid over the next decade. When they consider the challenges of sustained load growth, DER adoption, and climate change, bigger questions need to be answered:

  1. How do you operate a grid that is behaving very differently than today?
  2. What do you need to do over the next 10 years to ensure reliability while keeping the cost of infrastructure upgrades at a reasonable level?

Viewed through this lens, it’s not enough just to be able to turn smart thermostats or EV chargers on and off. You need comprehensive, fine-tuned grid awareness to understand how specific DERs are impacting local grid reliability, capacity, and costs. And you need to be able to tie that grid awareness to an ability to dispatch fleets of DERs in a way that enhances reliability and reduces costs.

Operational challenges due to load growth and DER adoption are emerging quickly. If utilities don't take action now, they will be stuck reacting to these changes and struggling to maintain reliability and manage costs. Below I detail three specific examples of how a grid orchestration platform is enabling utilities to address emerging challenges in a proactive manner.

KCEC Solar Array, Taos, New Mexico – photo courtesy of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative

#1) Operating megawatt-scale local solar

For nearly a decade, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC) has pursued an ambitious agenda to make its electricity greener and more affordable for its members in northern New Mexico, recently meeting its goal to provide 100% of its daytime load with solar generation. Along the way, KCEC parted ways with its long-time generation and transmission provider due to its strict limits on local solar energy production. Through a subsequent partnership with a new wholesale power supplier, Guzman Energy, the cooperative has boosted the renewable energy content of its portfolio by more than 4x and reduced its overall cost of energy by 60%.

With Guzman, KCEC has deployed several megawatt-scale solar-plus-storage plants on the distribution system, charging the batteries during the day and discharging them during the early evening peak demand. But the cooperative faces two big challenges in operating these plants that could stall continued progress toward a lower cost, high-renewable grid. The solution to these challenges: grid orchestration.

Challenge 1: There will be some days—particularly in the spring and fall—when member demand is low and solar generation is high. If generation exceeds demand and the solar-plus-storage plants export excess energy onto the transmission system, KCEC would face operational challenges and costly fees for backfeeding onto the transmission operator.

Working with KCEC, Camus is configuring its grid orchestration platform to monitor and forecast generation at the solar-plus-storage plants as well as the loads at the substations where the transmission and distribution systems meet. By forecasting when generation would exceed load, KCEC can take action, such as altering battery charging schedules, to avoid backfeeding.

Challenge 2: The feeder lines adjacent to the solar-plus-storage plants are rated to accommodate a certain amount of power flow. KCEC will need to ensure that solar exports do not exceed these rated limits and overload the lines. We’re configuring the orchestration platform to automatically monitor solar generation and curtail production when necessary to protect utility equipment. This will help KCEC avoid costly damage to its grid assets and manage its growing solar portfolio within its existing distribution infrastructure.

#2) Shaping the EV transition

With rapid adoption of electric vehicles, aggregate EV charging loads can overload transformers and power lines and require expensive grid upgrades. Some utilities are responding to the EV transition by upgrading transformers when and where charging loads exceed local grid capacity. This approach will lead to substantial capital infrastructure costs, often concentrated in wealthy communities with early EV adopters.

For a more proactive solution that benefits all utility customers, utilities need to know where EVs are charging today, how they are impacting local grid assets, and how that’s likely to change in the future. This is easier said than done, since many EVs are not enrolled in utility programs and are invisible to the grid control room, making the necessary data foundation difficult to come by.

Grid orchestration offers a solution. Camus’ orchestration platform uses machine learning (specifically classification algorithms) to detect EV charging loads based on smart meter data, also known as AMI or Advanced Metering Infrastructure data. With Geographic Information System (GIS) data on the meters’ location, the orchestrator can associate charging loads with specific transformers and other upline grid assets. For our utility partners, we’re using this data to quantify EV load increases over time, forecast future EV adoption, and simulate the grid impacts of that adoption. These analyses are providing valuable insights on when and where grid infrastructure upgrades may be needed.

With high-quality information on EV charging locations, charging patterns, and adoption trends, a utility can design managed charging programs that strategically shift loads to mitigate local grid capacity constraints and avoid grid upgrades. Our orchestration platform can implement the managed charging for the program, drawing on a wide range of grid and DER data—such as charger locations, load forecasts, and transformer ratings–and in coordination with DERMS and EV aggregator partners.

This approach allows the utility to take a leadership role in managing electrification, shaping how the EV transition unfolds and enlisting its community members in the process.

#3) Lowering energy costs for all

When it comes to reducing energy costs, differences between utility cost structures and customer rates can create misaligned incentives. For many utilities, a significant portion of power supply costs are driven by coincident peak charges—the fee associated with the hour each month in which the wholesale power supplier’s system is at peak load. Meanwhile, customers often pay time-of-use electric rates that can vary depending on the time of day. These rates are typically high during peak demand in the early evening and much lower during the overnight off-peak period.

Grid orchestration can help utilities manage DERs in a way that reduces utility and customer costs at the same time. With support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Community-Integrated Distributed Energy Resilience (CIDER) initiative, we’re working to develop this “win-win” capability in collaboration with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, five electric cooperatives, and Emulate Energy, a developer of home energy optimization software.

Emulate’s software determines how to shift the energy usage of EV charging, smart thermostats, HVAC systems, and other flexible loads to minimize the homeowner's energy costs. In the summer, the software might precool a home and activate the home’s EV charger when rates are low in the early morning while reducing these loads when rates increase in the evening.

By integrating Camus’s utility-facing grid orchestration platform with Emulate’s customer-facing software, the team is creating an innovative approach to lower overall system load during peak demand times and drive cost savings for customers. The solution will group DERs at Emulate-equipped homes into dispatchable “virtual batteries”, co-optimizing for benefits to the utility and the homeowner.

Here's an example of how it might work. Based on a utility’s forecast that the coincident peak is going to occur at 5 p.m. on a certain day, Camus’ platform sends a virtual battery dispatch signal to Emulate. Emulate would then optimize the dispatch of individual DERs to reduce the 5 p.m. peak and lower energy bills for all of the utility’s customers, not just the ones with DERs. This approach to peak reduction can help defer or avoid grid upgrades as well.

The CIDER project is also investigating the reliability benefits of DERs. As a safety feature, inverters on solar arrays temporarily stop exporting power to the grid during and after outages. Because of the reduced output from distributed solar, post-outage customer energy demand may be much higher than expected. We’re using the integrated Camus-Emulate solution to provide more accurate net and gross load visibility to inform safe, reliable feeder switching and reconfiguration during outage restoration. Utilities will increasingly need this visibility as penetration of distributed solar grows.

A proactive stance on the grid’s evolution

The penetration of DERs is rising in communities around the world. Any long-term utility plan today is incomplete without a serious consideration of DERs and their role in reliable, cost-effective, safe grid operations. Making grid orchestration a core part of a utility’s technology portfolio provides utilities with a proactive way to stay ahead of DER-related challenges. Grid orchestration allows a utility to see grid conditions locally and across the whole grid, connect the dots on this information, and execute controls that benefit the grid and utility customers.

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