Regs, renewables and consumers reshaping electrical landscape

The future of electrical power lies in the hands and demands of its consumers

By Mike Bacidore

CT1703 ABBcustomerworld Day2

The public gets what the public wants. Consumer demand is a consistent driver of production and supply, and that is a powerful incentive in the energy industry.

“Under the Trump administration, there’s a stated desire for more infrastructure investment. We’re supportive of that,” said Maureen Borkowski, chairman and president of Ameren Transmission, an energy carrier in the midwestern United States. “One of the concerns from the administration has been about EPA overreach. It’s my belief that with or without a clean power plan, you’re still going to see cleaner energy portfolios because it’s what our customers want. You’ll see more coal-plant retirements and more renewable energy. The trend is going to continue because customers want it and investors are interested in that. That impetus is going to continue with or without changes by the Trump administration.”

Borkowski and Claudio Facchin, president, power grids division, ABB, shared their thoughts on the future of energy during a keynote panel discussion at this week’s ABB Customer World in Houston.

“Everyone wants a balance,” said Borkowski. “None of us wants everything to be profit-driven. We focus on safety, reliability, environmental impact and sustainability of the energy we provide. How do you deliver a clean portfolio at a price customers can afford?”

The whole renewables aspect—the impact, the trends and the speed with which it has come in—is a key element, explained Facchin. “Renewables add volatility and complexity to managing the grid,” he said. “It goes all the way up to the backbone of the transmission system. Electricity is an increasingly key form of energy, and estimates predict a 70% increase in usage between now and 2040.”

Continental grid theory

The transmission grid is one of the key enablers of making this transformation happen. “Whether it will be one global connected grid or separate continental grids, we have the technology to transport energy long distances,” said Facchin. “A lot of things are driven by innovation. Utilities are still seen as a very conservative industry. But I see a lot of utilities pushing technology through to take the grid to the next level. Many utilities adopted digital technology 10-15 years ago. And when you look at high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) technology, the challenge is how to manage, control and monitor power flow. We’ve been a leader in implementing HDVC technology, and we’re taking it to the next level.”

ABB is building a 12-gigawatt HVDC link in China, which wants to bring solar and wind energy from the rural northwest to the urban centers in the east, said Facchin. “Now, they’re looking at linking Russia, China, Japan and Korea to share power. In Europe, there are a lot of projects going on to link the countries, such as substation links between Norway and Germany.”

In the United States, there’s an opportunity to leverage the HVDC link to share electricity, but U.S. regulatory bodies work differently than they do on other continents. “In the United States, most policy is done at the state level,” explained Borkowski. “To have all of the states benefit from an HVDC link is a challenge. All of the siting and routing is done at the state level. That’s an interesting difference. You have policy impediments in the United States.”

About five years ago, Ameren developed a strategic initiative to make an investment in its transmission system. “We’ve invested about $3 billion—$800 million last year alone—to enhance the reliability of the system and the ability to bring on renewable energy sources,” said Borkowski. “Technology, along with changes in policy, makes an impact on the marketplace. Customer expectations have an even bigger impact. We at Ameren are putting information at our customers’ fingertips.”

Data, anyone?

Ameren also sees growing teams of data scientists creating applications that deliver value from all the data that’s being collected. “As we collect more information, we can slice and dice that and discover what kinds of data platforms and mobile communications we need to create,” Borkowski said.

“There’s no point in collecting that data and not using it properly,” added Facchin. “For example, the grid needs to be adjusted and optimized to accommodate renewables in a safe and reliable manner. It’s more about demand response and power quality—managing voltage, frequency and power factor. Energy storage is a key consideration for the grid of the future, and its relevance will continue to increase. The growth curve on energy storage will be very similar to what we have seen recently with photovoltaic solar.”

Borkowski sees the technology transformation as evolutionary, but with some disruptive aspects. “We’re getting smarter in an incremental sense,” she explained. “There’s this huge group of folks who will be retiring. We’ve been bringing in young talent. We need to build the talent pipeline in elementary and middle school. STEM programs get kids excited, but we need to focus on having them view themselves as STEM-capable. We have to inspire these kids. Millennials and the generation behind them want to transform the world. What better way to do that than by being an engineer?”

Facchin sees different futures emerging on different continents, especially when it comes to engineering skill sets of younger generations. “In Asia, there has been a focus in the electrical engineering space,” he said. “China and India have a huge number of electrical engineers coming out of those universities at a very high level. In the United States, we see more of a gap.”

Part of the solution to making STEM careers—and the power industry—more appealing to millennials is a more explicit linkage between engineering and renewable energy, Facchin believes. Because millennials tend to identify with environmental responsibility, it provides an avenue that might attract them to STEM pursuits.

Download the full report from ABB Customer World 2017

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