Creativity key as grid planners confront changing technologies, politics

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, October 25, 2013

Managers of the U.S. electric grid today are struggling to keep pace with aging infrastructure, cybersecurity, the growing influx of wind and solar, the shift from coal to natural gas and the loss of key grid planners.

John Norris of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warned the North American Electric Reliability Corp.’s (NERC) second annual reliability summit in Arlington, Va., that “rapid change” has become a fact of life in their business.

“Hold onto your seats,” Norris said.

Gerry Cauley, NERC’s president and CEO, said such a dizzying number of challenges is difficult to prioritize and he’s more anxious than he was a decade ago. “We can’t do everything,” he said before asking utility executives how to tackle so many issues.

Utilities are struggling to replace aging transformers, some of which have been in place for more than 40 years, said Caren Anders, Duke Energy Corp.’s senior vice president and chief transmission officer.

Coal plant closures and the integration of renewables have also increased transmission challenges, she said, along with the need to forecast wind and solar and have standby generation if the wind doesn’t blow or sun doesn’t shine.

“We have units cycling that have never cycled before,” Anders said.

Despite the demand for new transmission lines and equipment, Anders noted that grass-roots opposition is growing with the help of social media. Duke’s recent efforts to cut trees around power lines, she said, prompted one group to set up a website and send emails to the utility’s board of directors.

“No one wants a transmission tower or line .. in their backyard,” she said.

Ken Donohoo, Texas-based Oncor Electric Delivery’s director of system planning, said the industry needs support from lawmakers and regulators to send a signal that such projects are critical to grid stability.

“We need a champion,” he said.

Donohoo also said grid planners and operators are “losing the inertia” as the system moves from large, central power plants to distributed solar and wind generators. There will need to be changes, he said, to the market structure.

A move toward more distributed power sources like rooftop solar has also triggered a debate over who is responsible for paying for system maintenance, and many state regulators are only beginning to address the issue, said Todd Snitchler, chairman of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission.

“I don’t think there’s yet a resolved approach,” he said.

But Tom Vitez, ITC Holdings’ vice president of planning, said planners must consider that scenarios 15 or so years from now may be radically different than what’s mainstream today.

“We need to be more creative,” he said. “We need to uncuff our planners and let them reach for the stars.”