Navigant Research Blog

With Renewables Revolution Comes Industry Debate

Lauren Callaway — June 15, 2015

Alongside the renewables revolution, the energy industry has found itself in the midst of a substantial debate.  And this is not just in a technical sense; it’s in an economic and existential sense, as well.  The technical considerations of integrating renewables can be highly variable from one geography and transmission and distribution (T&D) network to the next. Similar to economics, which are also bound tightly to policy, the existential debates have been grounded upon anything from environmentalism and perceptions to differing levels and sources of information, etc.  Because of this complexity, I do not envy those bodies currently tasked with pulling together an effective plan of attack to promote and support integration of renewables and distributed energy resources (DER).

The first need to address is gaining a stronger understanding of what is occurring at the edge of the distribution grid from an electrotechnical perspective in real time or near real time, or establishing highly comprehensive network monitoring and accurate situational awareness.  This is then followed by implementing appropriate and cost-effective control and support solutions. It sounds easy, but it is far from it. Traditionally, the sector of the distribution grid past the distribution substation has not been monitored and controlled according to actual conditions—at best, assets have been programmed to react according to sensed or forecasted conditions. The concept of developing a real-time model of more centralized parts of the network is only something that has been achieved in the past decade.

But grids that have high penetration of DER and renewables require comprehensive monitoring and situational awareness right down to the resource itself—that eerie last mile of the grid.  This is because the intermittent nature of renewables and the presence of bidirectional power can easily disturb voltage profiles, creating issues with stability and capacity in the distribution network.  The utility needs to be able to sense these disturbances before it can figure out how to cope with them.

As an analyst for the energy and utilities industry, I have watched renewables and DER-enabling technologies over recent years as they’ve transgressed from theoretical to real, tested, and in a growing number of cases, proven as effective.  Recently, the information, operational, and communications (IOC) technology sectors have produced a number of unique offerings for real-time network monitoring and situational awareness.

Diverging Perspectives

In the running for success, there seem to be two general schools of thought—the centralized enterprise approach, filled by distribution management system vendors, and a school of more alternative solutions that can act as distributed standalone systems or can sit on top of an enterprise system.  A commonality between both categories is that they largely revolve around the integration of a greater number of devices (both DER and new networked equipment such as sensors and power electronics), and they rely on big data analytics to develop situational awareness in an unpredictable DER environment.

The key difference is that one simultaneously manages the utility network as a whole—a highly complex process—but one that has the potential to optimize goals across the organization.  The other one acts as a standalone solution that is isolated to a smaller number of use cases depending on technological and organizational needs and can be a much smaller overall investment that achieves required results—but there is so much gray area surrounding the efficacy of each approach.

Navigant Research’s recent report, Grid Edge Intelligence for DER Integration, provides an overview of these different technology segments and competitive analysis for different companies involved in the fast-growing market for technologies that integrate DER.

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