Getting ready for my flight home to Virginia following a week at DistribuTECH 2015 in San Diego, I had my laptop plugged into the magic of electricity and connected to the Internet. It gave me a few minutes to reflect on some of the highlights of the week, and I still find it amazing to realize what a tight community the electric power industry has.
This year’s DistribuTECH let me reconnect with executive leaders, strategic planners, system operators and, most importantly, the teams that operate and maintain the power grid. It was also great to make new connections and learn about the broad range of solutions that are being enhanced and developed to improve the cost-effective delivery of reliable electricity.
But before I expand on the low-hanging fruit of the new, as students of the business, let’s take recall how our industry has become a major cornerstone in North America. We can start by researching the history of our roles in the magical drama of the delivery of electricity.
Most consumers probably can’t imagine a world without electricity. Having grown up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I can give you an idea. If you think it’s hot when the electricity there is on, imagine what it’s like following a mid-summer hurricane. Everything is dark while thousands of crews work to restore power. No water. No phones. Generators run as long as there’s fuel. Few of those generators can power conditioners. It’s not uncommon to see residents bringing tea, lemonade and water to the crews working to restore power to every single household. I’ve even witnessed a catfish farmer help feed 150 Mississippi Power Company linemen in appreciation for saving multiple farms following a massive ice storm.
It’s hard to appreciate what happened in the early days of electricity on the Gulf Coast, when local ice houses had to have generators to make ice. They started selling their reserve capacity locally, then created lines between cities to share load and improve reliability. Due to the cost, the government issued loans to provide electricity to rural communities.
Now, not only is every home connected to electricity, but because of that unseen magic, we have cell phone coverage almost everywhere, land, air and water. Imagine what those early explorers would think if they could see the luxuries we enjoy today.
Now we see the electric grid transforming everywhere around us. The grid is evolving from a one-way energy delivery system to a bi-directional, converged energy and information super-highway. It’s easy to forget the magic of electricity when it’s everywhere. Now, the major challenge for those who maintain the power grid is making sure the electricity delivered remains cost-effective and reliable for all of us.
It was easier when power sources were limited, making quality easier to manage. Now there’s a large and growing number of electrical generation sources. The good news is we have more management tools and solutions than ever before. But they have to be designed, installed and operated, using a power grid that can’t be rebooted or shut down for the season. The grid has to undergo its evolution and facelifts without shutting down, with unknown challenges around every corner. Our unsung heroes maintain 500kv lines from helicopters, clean live insulators with pressure washers, all while the power is still on!
We should all take a look and consider the costs of electricity, gasoline, cable, telephone, cellular and water services. Now consider that without consistent delivery of electricity, the challenge is to continue to receive those services. Those attending DistribuTECH would tell you that there is no single silver bullet for our evolving power grid, but that there are many silver bullets that will fit the grid like a loose fitting glove, adapting as technology advancements are developed, designed and implemented.
Some recent advancements we heard included the need to change how regulators and policy makers ensure that the cost of delivering electricity is fairly billed. Using drones for the inspection and management of assets, not just for daily operations, but also in emergency conditions. Integrating renewables, fuel cells, storage and such into the distribution and transmission power grids requires communications networks with more reliability capacity than currently in service. All of these changes require more secure storage, quality control management systems, multi-discipline engineering and field crews to safely operate and manage these solutions.
These are exciting times. We not only can experience the wonders of the unseen magic of electricity where we live, work and play, but thanks to the innovators and investors, we have access to electricity everywhere we can imagine.