Distributed, Renewable and Uncertain: Grid Planning in the 21st Century | SEPA Skip to content

Distributed, Renewable and Uncertain: Grid Planning in the 21st Century

The future of the grid is distributed, renewable and uncertain — all of which, says Kerrick Johnson of Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO), is putting electric utilities on an extremely fast, steep and creative learning curve.

“We do a 20-year plan, it’s useless. A 10-year plan, it’s largely useless, but it gives some direction. Three years is about where the operation really has value now,” Johnson told a room of utility and clean tech executives at the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s (SEPA) recent Grid Evolution Summit in Washington, D.C.

Grid Planning in the 21st Century
Kerrick Johnson of Vermont Electric Power Company, at SEPA’s Grid Evolution Summit, talking stakeholder engagement, the key connection between weather and demand, and using data to unlock new value on the grid. (Photo credit: Laura Lyon)

“We don’t know exactly how grid evolution planning is going to end up, but we know the riskiest place to be is to take no risk at all,” he said.

The need for utilities to get proactive, fast, on planning for the integration of solar, storage and other distributed energy resources (DERs) was a core topic of several conference workshops and sessions.

In Vermont, this new approach means that VELCO, a transmission utility owned by and serving the state’s 17 distribution utilities, has also become an investor and partner in Utopus Insights, an energy data analytics startup that was spun out of IBM.

But Vermont is not alone in tackling this problem.

Hawaiian Electric Company, the investor-owned utility serving five of Hawaii’s six main islands, must plan generation, transmission and distribution all at the same time, cobbling together an ever-evolving suite of analytic, forecasting and modeling tools.

“Already today, and very much in the future, the largest generation resource on each of our grids on our islands is going to be distributed energy resources, distributed solar, distributed storage,” said Colton Ching, Hawaiian Electric’s Senior Vice President of Planning and Technology. “That requires to plan our system as one big entity . . . We’ll not get a good answer, or even a workable answer without doing it all together.”

The workshop on grid planning — where both Ching and Johnson, VELCO’s Vice President of Strategy and Communication, spoke — provided a concentrated view of current best practices, along with frank talk about what does and doesn’t work.

With different market conditions and generation portfolios, Hawaii and Vermont have, predictably, developed different visions and detailed plans for how their systems will evolve. But, what emerged from the workshop was a strong sense of the paradigm shift underlying how both states are dealing with the fast pace of technological change and the ongoing uncertainties that have become an essential component of grid planning.

“The policy makers who decide it’s important to have a very large percentage of renewables, even 100 percent, have to have plans that inform (them on) what that really means and what you have to deploy, where and when.”

— Steve Corneli

“We’ve got to go beyond the paradigm of markets versus planning, and markets versus policy to planning for markets and for policy,” said Steve Corneli, principal at Strategies for Clean Energy Innovation, another panelist at the workshop. “The policy makers who decide it’s important to have a very large percentage of renewables, even 100 percent, have to have plans that inform (them on) what that really means and what you have to deploy, where and when.”


Solving Six or Seven Equations At the Same Time

Certainly, the drivers for the U.S. energy transition — and for new approaches to grid planning — have become industry givens, summarized in two quick sentences from panel moderator Bryan Hannegan, President and CEO of Holy Cross Electric, a Colorado electric cooperative.

“The onset of DERs is creating great opportunities for our customers and members, but it’s also creating a number of challenges in how we plan and operate the grid,”  he said. “We’re going from that old, classic, large-generation, one-way delivery, passive-customer model to something that is much more two-way, distributed, dynamic and ever-changing — and, frankly, hard to predict.”

Grid Planning in the 21st Century
At the Evolution of Grid Planning workshop (from left): Colton Ching of Hawaiian Electric, Bryan Hannegan of Holy Cross Electric, and Steve Corneli of Strategies for Clean Energy Innovation. (Photo credit: K Kaufmann)

But what that means for planners on the grid is much more complex, Corneli said. While grid planning used to be relatively straightforward — figuring out generation, then transmission, then distribution — it is now a multidimensional puzzle with constantly moving pieces.

“Today we have problems like how much wind (do we have) with what shape of wind production, how much solar with what shape of solar production, how much transmission to different places with different shapes and quantifies of this stuff, how much storage, where?” Corneli said. “All those problems have to be solved, and every one of them influences all the right solutions for all the others. It’s like six or seven different equations, all with six or seven variables, all of which need to be solved simultaneously.”

The case in point is Hawaii, which has set a target of running 100 percent on renewables by 2045. By the end of last year, Hawaiian Electric was at close to 26 percent, and, Ching said, is aiming for 48 percent by 2021.

Grid Planning in the 21st Century

The result is that overgeneration has become a major challenge. On a regular sunny day, the state’s many rooftop solar arrays provide some islands — each with its own self-contained grid — with more power than they can use, Ching said. Hawaiian Electric’s mid-day demand can be less than its traditional times of low demand, such as 3 a.m. The utility is already forced to curtail some renewable power — for example, wind projects — to maintain balance between supply and demand on the grid, Ching said.


The critical role of stakeholders

While simultaneous planning for generation, transmission and distribution is central to finding solutions for such challenges, Ching stressed that ongoing stakeholder engagement is even more essential.

“We learned it the hard way,” said Ching, referring to Hawaiian Electric’s past problems with long delays in interconnecting customers’ rooftop solar to the grid. “When you engage customers and stakeholders — and they are very active in Hawaii — you get their buy-in and their understanding of the process from day one. . . . You’ve got to think of them as very critical partners; they can feed you information you may not be able to get otherwise.”

The Hawaii Public Utilities Commission recently approved Hawaiian Electric’s long-term plan for getting to 100 percent renewables — developed with stakeholder input — and the utility recently filed a draft of its plan for grid modernization.

Johnson agreed on the critical role of stakeholders, and had his own story to tell of VELCO’s experience of customer pushback on one of the company’s big transmission projects. After the formation of a stakeholder group — the Vermont System Planning Committee — the utility decided to take $400 million of approved transmission projects off the table, he said.

“To think you can go into some place and say, ‘Here’s the best asset for the grid, so we’re going to tell you how it should work,’ that simply doesn’t happen in our world,” he said. “You have to earn support. You have to demonstrate and share data and information.”


Hyper-accurate planning for the future

Johnson sees data as key to unlocking grid efficiency and value the VELCO will need to reach Vermont’s renewable energy goal of 90 percent by 2050.  Even before the utility was faced with its own explosion of renewables, it installed a statewide fiber optic system and, with an Obama administration grant, achieved 94-percent deployment of advanced, or “smart,” meters.

VELCO first started working with IBM in 2014, to pull all the information it was receiving from sensors and meters into a high-performance computer system that can merge weather and load forecasting. The resulting modeling tool is, Johnson said, “hyper-accurate, 72 hours in advance, down to one square kilometer for the entire state,” and is tied to an equally accurate renewable generation forecasting tool.

Hawaiian Electric has developed similar tools with Department of Energy funding and a team of technology partners, but Ching said, there is no one tool that can cover all the different kinds of forecasting and modeling required for its system.

VELCO’s partnership with IBM — and the formation, earlier this year, of Utopus Insights — is aimed at creating a cloud-based platform that can also provide a range of other grid management services.

Johnson sees the partnership between a tech giant and a Vermont transmission utility as just one example of the kind of risks and creative collaborations that may lie outside many utilities’ risk-averse comfort zone, he said.

The bottom line, of course, is grid reliability and customer benefit, he said. Besides its 17 distribution utilities, VELCO is also owned by a public benefits corporation, which means its profits must provide benefits to the customers.

“That is the walk we are walking, what informs us, what motivates us,” Johnson said. “We are able to offer better information to stakeholders to understand where the grid is going, and that saves money, and it earns support and trust for when you do need to build transmission,” he said.

For Corneli, the tools developed by VELCO, Hawaiian Electric and others will untangle the multiple equations of grid planning for distributed technologies. They will, he said, ‘allow system designers or builders to say, ‘This is a great combination of resources.’ It won’t cannibalize itself, it won’t require massive curtailment; it won’t overload, it won’t involve a lot to build. We can actually do this.”