Navigating the Energy Transition

“The Energy Transition” has become a common phrase to describe the current state of the electric utility industry. But what exactly is the energy transition, how does it affect energy providers and what is technology’s role in it? These were the topics of conversation when NISC’s Chief Solutions Officer, David Bonnett, sat down to chat with Jim Jones, the Chief Information Officer of Great River Energy, a generation and transmission utility located in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

This transitional state the utility industry is currently experiencing creates new challenges, many of which are completely new and unique for providers. The transition brings with it new ways to generate power, new applications for measuring and using electricity and an enhanced connection with energy consumers.

“The industry is in a huge transition, and it has been for quite a while” Jones said. “Power supply and transmission is part of it, but as we go forward, it’s going to have a huge impact on distribution and retail space as well. The transition from fuel-based power sources to weather-based, more dispersed sources is a huge transition. Transportation, as well as appliances, all of that’s going to have an impact on the distribution network. Then some of the customers are going to try to generate their own energy as well. We have a lot of challenges in the future, but a lot of opportunities as well.”

To keep up with the increasing demands on the utility system, both transmission and distribution utilities are going to have to scale their resources, and their resource programs for things like smart thermostats and water heaters, to meet increased demand. One big component to meeting this scale is automation.

“The ability to integrate all the information sources with the control systems and with the end devices we’re going to control, all that needs to be able to automate in some fashion,” Jones said. “At the scale, the numbers we’re talking about, is not fathomable for a human brain to process and make a decision. But we need to be able to categorize it and sectionalize it and divvy it up in different ways, different locations over time.”

While automation is a critical component, these solutions need to be able to meet the demands of a variety of providers, all serving different-sized territories and diverse customer bases.

“I think we also have to have enough scale to make these [resource] programs compelling to the consumer,” Bonnett said. “One thing that we think about at NISC is how do we make it seamless for [distributors] to participate and bring these programs to their members, just like they’ve brought different payment options and a host of other programs over the years. How do we incorporate that into their day-to-day systems through automation?”

One of the answers to that question is technology, specifically systems that can help enable the resource programs that better connect energy end consumers not only with their distribution utility but continuing that link all the way to their Generation & Transmission Cooperatives (G&T).

“What we see is the importance of connecting power supply all the way down to the consumer through effective program design,” Bonnett said. “If you’re going to be successful, you need a smooth and automated connection. We have this new role that hasn’t really been in our repertoire, historically, the G&T. When you get into these programs that we’re talking about, we’re not experts on how to optimize power supply. I think our interconnection point that we’re seeing more and more is with these distributed energy resource management systems, which can be defined a little bit differently depending on where you sit. At the end of the day, we’re giving bulk power suppliers or folks that are experts on power supply, the tools they need, that integrate all the way down into and through the systems we provide through the distributors.”

The energy transition is taking the utility industry in many new directions, and meeting these challenges requires a variety of new solutions. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the necessity of good partnerships and working together to help bring the industry into the future.

“NISC has been an important critical partner for our members for a long time,” Jones said. “Lately you’ve grown into being a critical partner to us at the G&T as well. Dave and I met 10 to 12 years ago on this topic of where’s the industry headed? How are we going to manage through that evolution? We need more information, better information. That’s critical for the future. How do we help our member distribution cooperatives get there too, because this is going to eventually impact them. We talk openly about how we best get there, and we’re going to best get there together. That alignment is critical and distinguishes [NISC] from all the other vendors.”

Ultimately, the focus of the energy transition – whether at the G&T, distributor or even technology partner level – comes back to one thing: the member.

“I think the foundation of everything here is about serving the Member,” Bonnett said. “When we focus on that together, great things have happened, and we believe will continue to happen. This was the new frontier when we built this system in partnership with you, and I just couldn’t be more grateful for the way you have approached the relationship. I think there is a really bright future, and we’re looking forward to the next chapter.”