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Energy stories are dominating the news—not just oil prices, but electric cars, home energy storage systems, rooftop solar power, even Supreme Court rulings about demand response.

These devices and programs that move power on and off the distribution grid are collectively known as distributed energy resources (DERs), and they are a hot topic:

  • The DistribuTECH conference happening this month offers 60+ tracks related to DERs, distribution automation, demand response, energy efficiency, renewables integration, microgrids and energy storage.
  • The Supreme Court recently affirmed demand response.
  • New York and California have specific plans for supporting and exploiting DERs.
  • Nevada and Arizona are waging battles over solar energy and net metering.
  • Hawaii is pushing for 100 renewable energy by 2045, with 30 percent of homes on Oahu already using solar power.

Why are DERs such a big deal? Because it matters where DERs are located, what they connect to, and how and when they operate in real-time and in the future.

This increased focus about where, when and how things are operating on the distribution grid is a new mindset for utilities. Originally, the distribution grid was conceived and designed for a one-way flow of power from the utility’s central generation to consumers. DERs turn that pattern on its head.

The location of DERs matters because of their impact on the distribution grid. DERs like electric vehicles and energy storage devices draw large amounts of power from the grid. When the grid is overworked like this, voltage levels drop below acceptable levels, which leads to flickering lights, momentary outages, and eventually black outs. Other DERs such as rooftop solar panels can put too much power onto the grid. When this happens, voltage rises above acceptable levels, which leads to burnt out equipment and eventually power outages.

The time of day when DERs operate matters because of the impact on the prevailing assumptions about power consumption throughout a typical day. Historically, business hours have been the period of the heaviest power consumption, with afternoons / early evenings seeing the peak use. The current generation and distribution system has been designed around this consumption pattern. DERs disrupt this pattern. Solar power is most productive during sunny business hours, which means far less need for central generation. As soon as the sun goes down, however, solar goes away and suddenly lots of central generation is needed online in a hurry, at the busiest time of the day for energy use.

On the other hand, batteries and electric vehicles are charged most cost-effectively when rates are low, usually at night. Wind farms can be quite productive at night, which aligns well with energy storage. But wind farms are by their nature intermittent. Get enough large devices charging on a calm night and suddenly it isn’t necessarily the period of lowest generation and cheapest power.

Analyzing where, when and how things are operating is the unique strength and benefit of situational intelligence. DERs are one reason why situational intelligence has gained such a hold in the utilities space.

Soon you’ll see news stories about utilities adopting new business models and revenues streams based on making the increasingly dynamic distribution grid work smoothly and fairly for all participants, instead of just selling kilowatt hours to users. Just remember, you read it here first.

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