Gaining an edge on the grid: Analysts, editors and experts discuss future at Siemens event

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The “future utility” has been the focus of many discussions for a number of years and that discussion continued at Siemens' Industry Analyst Conference held in Boston the first week of September.

Mike Carlson, president of Siemens Digital Grid North America, pointed out during the conference that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began researching and discussing the future utility more than a decade ago. The early research and discussion, however, focused mostly on economics, he said.

That focus has changed. Today, technology is driving the future utility, Carlson said. Distributed energy resources (DER) are and will continue to be one of the biggest drivers of change and the biggest disrupter for utilities during the next five years.

Digitalization will be the other big driver of change, Carlson predicted. He pointed out that digitalization affects more than just software, it impacts operations and optimization.

In a room filled with energy industry analysts, editors and journalists, there was no shortage of dialog and discussion about where the electric power delivery business is headed. One consensus in the group was that current regulations are no longer adequate or in tune with technology and the new business models and revenue streams it enables. Many in the audience acknowledged and spoke of the frustration utility executives feel over regulators’ lack (or at least slow pace) of action.

Grid monitors/controls combined with market analytics will provide the economic answers energy providers are looking for, Carlson said.

When asked how quickly he sees policy moving, Carlson said electric delivery utilities can’t wait on regulations or they will “lose the game.”

In market models, utilities must be the platform optimizers and service providers, but they are in a tough spot, he said. It’s difficult to say whether utilities should be “fast followers or slow leaders,” Carlson said.

Much of the day’s discussion, from both Siemens’ executives and the audience, centered on moving from the general picture to more community-focused issues—decentralized generation and customer service and the new revenue streams they’ll allow. Most people agreed that those delivering electricity (and services) must be situational aware.

In other words, they must know what’s happening at the edge of the grid.

“We see edge-based as well as enterprise-based equally important,” said Ken Geisler, vice president of Siemens Digital Grid Strategy and Solutions.

Another consensus was that grid-edge sensors and controls will require grid-edge analytics.

“The future grid cannot be built without analytics—next generation analytics,” Geisler added.

While there was consensus that analytics is necessary and it allows data to be converted into business value, human involvement in analytics and grid automation was not so cut and dried.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) interface that allows grid analytics and automation to occur with no human input or interference was discussed and debated. It was clear that some experts believe human input should be included in the M2M interface. Others, however, feel that to get the speed, accuracy and advantages analytics offers, the human interface should be removed.

Randy Horn, vice president of Digital Grid Software for Siemens Digital Grid Division in Minneapolis was one of those people. “We either accept an inefficient grid or we trust automation and analytics,” he said.

The event was filled with plenty of thought-provoking and enlightening discussion. At the end of the day, however, everyone agreed that the future grid is not totally defined, that many solutions, some still unknown, will be created and that it will take utilities, the many vendors that support them, academia and regulators working together to create the solutions needed now and in the future to ensure utilities and their customers reap all the benefits advancing technology offers.

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