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It should just work: Plug-and-play DERs needed to maximize grid benefits for all

The key question about distributed energy resources (DERs) — solar, storage, demand response, electric vehicles, microgrids and other advanced, clean technologies — is no longer if or even when.

Rather, according to a range of experts at the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s (SEPA) recent Grid Evolution Summit, the focus is now increasingly on how. That is, what platforms and technical standards are needed for utilities and consumers to deploy DERs in ways that provide optimal benefits for themselves, other industry stakeholders and the grid, while also promoting robust, competitive energy markets.

“There’s an urgent need to adapt to DERs,” said Erik Gilbert, Director, Navigant Energy, an energy consulting group. “A lot of utilities aren’t on that path yet.”

At the conference, held July 25-27 in Washington, D.C., discussion on the “how” side of the DER equation centered on two themes. First, utilities must invest in platforms that allow for the evolution of an integrated smart grid, encompassing a broad range of distributed technologies.

Second, how quickly can the industry adopt standards that will allow for the kind of seamless, plug-and-play interconnection and integration of DERs that will drive consumer adoption and consumer-grid benefits.

Whit Fulton of ConnectDER talking about interoperability at SEPA’s Grid Evolution Summit: A National Town Meeting. (Photo by Laura Lyon)

“Do we ask customers to become more technically savvy?” said Whit Fulton, Founder and CEO of ConnectDER Inc., a company providing advanced technology for connecting solar and other DERs to the grid. “No. We need to develop standards [for DERs] so that it’s plug and play.”

The speed of DER adoption — accelerating faster than many industry watchers expected even a few years ago — is driving the need for new approaches to grid planning and interoperability standards.

Recent figures from Navigant predict a 12-percent compound annual growth for DERs from 2015 to 2024, Gilbert said. Through 2020, DER deployments could expand at three times the pace of centralized generation, he said.

“The key transition is going from where we are today, where DERs act in isolation – a solar system puts out energy, smart thermostats help with emergency demand response or peak-shaving, but they’re not interacting – to things operating in an integrated, stitched-together way,” said Seth Frader-Thompson, President and CEO of EnergyHub, a provider of software platforms that help utilities integrate DER components.

As a result, some utilities are already shifting toward what Gilbert called “advanced integrated planning.” The approach combines internal planning with proactive stakeholder engagement and focuses on optimizing investment across utility functions for customers, distribution, transmission and generation. It also incorporates risk analysis into the process, because DERs and their resulting two-way power flows introduce unpredictability to the grid compared with central generation.

 

Customer-sided resources for critical grid services

One sign of industry acceptance of this more complex approach to planning is its adoption in regions outside the traditional renewable energy hot spots, such as California and Hawaii. In Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which serves as the transmission grid operator for 90-percent of the state’s electric load, is also participating in the shift to a DER model. In ERCOT’s case, the challenge is establishing aggregation and communications systems to ensure interoperability and high performance over a wide variety of resources.

For example, “smart” electric hot water heaters can be aggregated as a grid resource — for shifting load or shaving peaks — but must be able to receive and send signals allowing a quick response if loads shift. Among the tasks still to be done: create standards for high-speed data recorders that need to be added to the grid to monitor communication and resource performance.

Hawaii is well known as a leader in integrating renewables, but is also moving toward incorporating an advanced demand response system that goes beyond basic load shifting or peak shaving, said Matt McDonnell, Counsel of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.

In 2014, the commission determined that many of the state’s demand response programs were operating independently, without a coordinating vision. So they asked Hawaiian Electric Company — which serves five of the state’s six main island — to identify system security requirements, unbundle ancillary services, define specifications in technology-neutral terms and start modeling costs. The utility came back with a comprehensive plan that defined how DERs can contribute in four areas: fast frequency response, regulating reserves, replacement reserves and capacity.

“The [utility is] looking to stand up a market where one didn’t previously exist — so customer-sided resources can begin to provide critical grid services to the system operation,” McDonnell said.

 

Standards for plug-and-play DERs

As individual states and utilities upgrade their networks, the need for DER interoperability becomes increasingly apparent and pressing.

Today’s DER systems are relatively “immature and segmented,” with technologies tailored for each utility, said Steve Widergren, Principal Engineer, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

“Integrating DERs will be driven by [information and communication technology] standards that are electricity-technology agnostic,” he said.

Work is underway at PNNL and other places to do just that, but it’s a complex task.

Widergren said that standards should be open, to ensure accessibility for all players in the industry. Proprietary standards have their place, but open standards will accelerate innovation in the residential DER market, he said.

Fulton of ConnectDER added that DER interfaces, particularly for residential customers, need to be easy to use and understand. Residential customers have not historically added generation or other smart devices to the grid, requiring them to have a two-way connection with their utility distribution system. They simply flipped a switch and consumed electrons, he said.

Just as software and applications had to evolve to work seamlessly with both Microsoft-compatible PCs and Apple products, DER devices will need to be work as interoperable modules, Fulton said. That’s a challenge in a world of hundreds of utilities, each with proprietary standards developed to meet customer needs in their respective territories.

“The vision of modularity doesn’t necessarily map to the utility world,” Fulton said.

The good news, said Scott Fisher, Vice President, Greenlots, a developer of electric vehicle charging systems, is that utilities are actively seeking simple standards for their DER networks – which could help promote easy-to-use devices at the residential level.

“DERs are already complicated enough,” Fisher said. “As you add new, different pathways to allow electric vehicles, charging stations and other DER components to communicate with utilities, we hear from utilities that making things simpler for them… is the easier and cheaper way to go.”

Fulton says plug-and-play modularity will require the involvement, first, of two standard-setting organizations — UL, which currently does not have a plug and play model, and ANSI, so solutions suppliers can design residential-focused products that are interoperable. Implementing standards will then be the work of utilities and DER developers working hand in hand, he said.

Fulton’s wish list also includes a home “key” — probably a smart phone — to allow new devices to be added to the system with the click of a button.

Widergren also pointed out that new DER appliances and devices will not only need to be interoperable and conform with each utility’s grid, they will need to be tested as part of the grid to reduce risk.

“We need the ability to certify that multiple products from different vendors can work together… and move across state lines and still work. There’s not enough of that testing being done,” he said

Following its merger with the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) earlier this year, SEPA is moving forward with a number of interoperability efforts, said Aaron Smallwood, Senior Director of Technical Services. The list includes working with the Department of Energy on an interoperability roadmap, and developing grid architecture and grid edge communication, as well as interoperability testing and certification.

“Consumers are demanding new energy products and services, and utilities and DER vendors are responding.” Smallwood said. “Interoperability is the springboard for even more innovation. Once we know devices are able to securely talk to each other and the grid — we will have taken another step towards the vision of a modern energy grid.”

For more information on SEPA’s interoperablity initiatives and working groups, contact Aaron Smallwood at asmallwood@sepapower.org.

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