Renewables, customer demands driving new changes in electric industry

Changing customer demands for green energy and the influx of renewables are driving electric industry players to put in more investment in power transmission assets, according to a report recently released by global engineering and construction company Black & Veatch.

“Investments in transmission and distribution assets are rising sharply, while innovation that speeds the adoption and integration of renewable energy is at a premium,”said Ed Walsh, President of Black & Veatch’s power business.

The report, titled “2017 Strategic Directions: Electric Industry Report”, explores how these transmission and distribution plays reflect the increasing roles of advanced technologies and distributed energy resources in pursuit of an uninterruptable power flow.

Among key findings, the report highlights how electric services providers are continuously adapting to evolving financial and political environments. Changing regulatory landscapes on the state and federal levels and rising consumer interest in green energy are tugging at industry leaders as they simultaneously navigate problems of aging infrastructure and security.

“The entire electric industry is adopting a more flexible approach to finance, strategy development and technology to meet demand and deliver a secure, reliable power supply,” Walsh said.

Changes within the power industry are forcing reconsiderations of conventional planning and delivery models.

At the residential level, customer adoption of solar and other behind-the-meter options are challenging business plans of old, the report finds. Even long-held models for power flows to large business or industrial customers are shifting as brick and mortar retail increasingly cedes to online commerce and centralized distribution hubs.

“Innovation will become increasingly important as the industry continues to face seismic shifts that are reshaping the future of power services as we know them,” Walsh added.

The report also analyzes the role of integrated planning, and the importance of long-term, holistic strategies for managing new generation sources on the power grid. Utility master planning is essential to accommodating these changes, meeting local and national regulatory requirements and maintaining reliability.

“Change is accelerating across the industry at an unprecedented rate,” said John Chevrette, President of Black & Veatch’s management consulting business. “Adoption of distributed generation is a common challenge for virtually all utilities, but the tactical solutions will be unique for each. Holistic master planning will be a crucial component that will enable utility leaders to evolve their plans to meet future need.”

Other key findings of the report include:

  • 60% of survey respondents named reliability and aging infrastructure as the top two major drivers of transmission investment.
  • Close to half of utilities plan to add a substantial amount of renewable energy (solar photovoltaic and/or wind turbine) generation to their systems in the next five years; only 2% plan to add coal-fired generation.
  • Cyber security (No. 2) and physical security (No. 8) continue to rank high among the industry’s top concerns. Technology has introduced vulnerabilities, but utilities are prioritizing risk and resilience mitigation to shore up security gaps.
  • More than 45% of respondents plan to invest over US$25 million in Big Data analytics, smart grid improvements and/or system monitoring over the next two years.
  • Utilities are making strides in energy storage; 27% are either running or developing an energy storage pilot program, while almost half have it on their technology roadmaps.

The report is based on a survey of 533 participants across the utility, municipal, commercial and community sectors.

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