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Proposing a New Distribution System Planning Model

With increasing numbers of distributed energy resources (DERs) on the distribution grid, many utilities are re-thinking distribution system planning. The traditional planning process is becoming less linear and more democratized, pushing utilities to consider creative and collaborative solutions to address capacity constrained locations on the grid. Given growing DER deployment, our industry needs to ensure that grid systems are flexible and interactive, not merely reactive.

System planning should evolve to provide more accurate DER and load forecasts, and ensure appropriate communications about the location of grid needs and system constraints between utilities, third parties and customers. Traditionally, distribution system planning has followed a very linear process: utility departments examine the system, forecast DER impact and load growth and run an analysis on their system needs, replacements and repairs. They then determine solutions, such as upgrades to substations and lines, and eventually release an investment plan which lays out the strategy and projects. The process tends to be a one-way discussion, where stakeholders are not able to participate until the plan is submitted and reviewed.

Source: Non-Wires Alternatives (NWA) – Incorporating NWAs into Your Grid Modernization Program, SEPA

This strategy has worked – especially on a system with almost no distributed energy resources embedded. However, in today’s distribution system environment, perhaps it’s time to evolve the linear planning model and consider something more consultative.

Looking to non-wires alternatives

One way utilities are responding to the demands of regulators and stakeholders is by incorporating non-wires alternatives (NWAs) as potential solutions for capacity constrained locations on the grid. These non-wires alternatives offer a way to leverage customer and third party resources on the grid, such as solar, storage or any other distributed generation for grid support without needing to undertake large projects, upgrade substations or build more lines. Through effective planning, utilities can leverage customer and third party resources to manage peak load, improve grid reliability, and keep costs down for the customer.

Moving away from a straight line approach

In the traditional distribution system planning process, the utility will run a series of workshops and webinars with external stakeholders to socialize their plans. Utilities usually focus on building awareness, sharing information, and educating stakeholders, but the information flow is often one-way, making it hard to establish goodwill and trust. Building trust is possible by conducting working groups and inviting engaged conversations that invite input early and often in the process. This lets developers and providers know they will gain visibility into the grid in return for communicating with the utility. This engagement also can help avoid potentially contentious litigation, whereby the utility completes their planning process – to then have stakeholder opinions and comments provided through written comment in a litigated case.

To achieve an open and iterative system planning process, utilities, customers, and third parties must share information efficiently and effectively. Utilities need to accurately forecast and plan for anticipated DER projects and real estate developments in order to provide a projection of the grid and its anticipated constraints. It’s also important for customers and third parties to have access to utility information and data so that they can identify opportunities and propose solutions into the market.

We are already seeing utilities sharing information by providing hosting capacity maps showing stakeholders where capacity for more DERs exists on the system, or where the system is constrained and could benefit from energy storage or aggregated demand response programs. Examples include Southern California Edison’s Distributed Energy Resource Interconnection Map (DERiM), and New York State Electric & Gas and Rochester Gas & Electric’s Distributed Interconnection Guide Map.

Thus, data sharing between different parties not only improves utility processes, like load forecasting, but it allows third parties to develop and engineer non-traditional solution sets for consideration. In this new emerging market, the utility acts as a smart-integrator rather than a traditional energy service company delivering electricity over poles and wires.

A new customer-utility relationship

The diagram below depicts a new proposed model that focuses on customers, stakeholders and the utility, with the following objectives:

  1. Customer-focused, prioritizing reliability, affordability, and delivering on policy goals
  2. Stakeholder-informed, focusing on bi-directional data flow
  3. Utility-driven, holding the utility accountable to identify grid needs, define non-wires solution sets, consider stakeholder ideas and manage the risk


Source: Non-Wires Alternatives (NWA) – Incorporating NWAs into Your Grid Modernization Program, SEPA

In order to develop this bidirectional information flow process, the following principles are foundational:

  • The utility has the authority to lead the planning process
  • Clear and consistent timelines exist
  • Third-party NWA partnerships have visibility into the grid to identify solutions
  • Transparency and collaboration is critical to ensure alignment with policy goals and to gain trust
  • Two-way data flow exists to optimize load forecasts, hosting capacity maps, and grid needs assessments to allow for effective utility investments in the grid.

Ultimately the utility remains responsible for maintaining the reliability, safety, affordability, and security of the grid. However, a new planning process would enable customers and third parties to be more actively engaged so that their resources can be leveraged for grid planning.

SEPA recently used this model as part of a consultation engagement with the D.C. Public Service Commission (DCPSC).  Tasked with facilitating several grid modernization initiatives in the District, the team chose distribution system planning as a key project. SEPA worked with a number of utility partners and the DCPSC to implement these principles, and developed the above model to engage customers and third party stakeholders. Learn more

SEPA summarized its findings into a four part grid modernization series, covering non-wires alternatives, customer focus, microgrids and pilot projects. This series is available for download.

Jared will be speaking at Distributech on Thursday, January 30. His session is titled, Grid Modernization and Utility Distribution Planning: How Utilities are Enhancing Distribution System Planning Through Stakeholder Engagement and Consideration of Non-wires Alternatives. Learn more