Infrastructure Week 2017: Pathways to Sustainability and Reliability Converging

Infrastructure Week 2017: Pathways to Sustainability and Reliability Converging

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Infrastructure Week 2017: Power customers compel electric providers to embrace sustainability. #timetobuild
Tuesday, May 16, 2017 - 12:00pm

CONTENT: Article

By Ed Walsh, President, Black & Veatch's Power business

Up and down the energy chain – from electricity generation sources to the light switch – power customers are compelling their infrastructure providers to further embrace sustainability. Utilities are working to add new forms of distributed energy resources (DER), and are meeting this challenge in exciting ways. They are evolving from traditional generation sources towards an era of highly responsive, low-emission, balanced power portfolios that showcase new technology.

As an industry, we can no longer merely ponder renewable energy’s march on the power grid. It's here, and customers are increasingly demanding it.

During Infrastructure Week 2017, Black & Veatch is joining with the industry in considering the expanding roles that solar, wind, microgrids and other DERs are playing in the discussion around resource efficiency. Yet a fundamental question raised by this trend - the question of reliability – persists. The low price of natural gas, which has been positioned alongside renewables as a cleaner and relatively inexpensive generation source, is helping to bridge these two eras and alleviate reliability and intermittency concerns associated with renewables.

But the path forward is not always smooth or steady. Our most recent Strategic Directions: Electric Industry Report shows ongoing uncertainty about whether the move towards sustainability can meet the expectations of an always-on, always-connected society that demands 100 percent uptime.

The arrival of environmentally friendly microturbines, fuel cells, photovoltaics, wind turbines, improved energy storage and other advanced power technologies are all pushing distributed generation toward parity with traditional utility generation. But how do we accommodate distributed generation and become active agents in growing distributed generation for long-term growth and benefit?

Costs associated with utilities upgrading their distribution systems to accommodate distributed generation are a major barrier, as are concerns that ratemaking and regulatory issues may not always allow utilities to accommodate rising distributed generation and sustain their baseload commitments to the grid. It must be noted, too, that reliability is not limited to the generation resource. It also encompasses the huge transmission and power delivery network that spans the continent and the interactive control of the generation portfolio. Many of these facilities are aging or are at maximum capacity.

The country's migration to more renewables introduces new demands on generation response across the board and changes power delivery requirements in the existing transmission and distribution system. Utilities recognize the need for these complex system upgrades, but existing market systems may not allow them to equitably fund such changes.

Taken individually, these and other issues are multifaceted and require innovative solutions. But their interconnectedness is unmistakable. Technologies that make our systems more efficient, sustainable and reliable also carry stark risks of financial viability, intermittency and disintermediation. Fortunately, ours is an industry well-versed in adaptation and innovation. We are anxious to meet the challenge.