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+5 Takeaways from AclaraConnect 2018

Our bags are unpacked and emails cleared and we have time to reflect on what we learned from #AclaraConnect 2018. This year we brought together a stellar group of experts and speakers who inspired our attendees to step outside of their comfort zones, build upon what came before, play off each other’s strengths, and counterbalance weaknesses. In other words, to put into action this year’s theme: Come Together. Connect for a Better Future.

We’d like to pick out just a few highlights from our agenda to remind you of everything you learned (or missed) at AclaraConnect 2018 and to encourage you to

Save the Date for next year’s conference, in Austin, Texas,
May 20-23, 2019

Takeaway 1 – The Power of Goals and Teamwork

AclaraConnect - Kellly Brothers

Our keynote speakers were the Scott and Mark Kelly, twin brothers who have distinguished themselves in the military as fighter and attack pilots (there is a difference) and as astronauts. Both brothers served on the International Space Station, with Scott spending a record-breaking year in space and both brothers participating in a Nasa study on how space affects the human body.

Takeaway 2 – A Fast-Changing Security Landscape

One big takeaway from our Security and Critical Infrastructure panel is that there needs to be better preparation and better coordination of government resources so that there is a better response when something happens related to critical utility infrastructure, and that when investments are made by the government that they keep energy security and reliability in mind.AclaraConnect - Security infrastructure panel

This type of preparation and coordination is more difficult today than ever because the issues are so complex that it is difficult to pass legislation that can address effectively and simply the many needs of the industry, said Lisa Jacobson, president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) and a member of the Department of Energy’s State Energy Efficiency steering committee. Regulations also need to be updated. 

“How do we update the regulatory structure so that the market is pointed in the direction to make better investments to ensure that our electric system is more reliable and secure when things are changing so fast,” added Jacobsen. 

What do governments need to do to improve decision-making when it comes to critical infrastructure? Tom Simchak, Senior Policy Analyst, National Governors Association’s Environment, Energy, and Transportation Division said, “Communications – people talking to people – and planning. The partnerships governments make with utilities is also critical – and these relationships must cross state lines.” More states are looking at the problems of critical infrastructure holistically, he added.

Yet, even with a new emphasis on upgrading security, the threat from hackers is growing. Ransomware is still a threat, but what is being seen now is a shift from demanding a ransom to quietly taking control of a device for the purpose of mining bitcoin, said Maurice Turner, a policy fellow at New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative.

However, more worrisome than ransomware or bitcoin mining is hacking designed to disrupt systems – and more of this type of hacking is being traced to Russia.

“They have been practicing in Ukraine and other parts of Europe, where they successfully brought down the power grid,” said Turner.

It was assumed Russian hackers would not try this in the U.S., but since 2016, attempts to disrupt grids in the U.S. have been reported, he added.

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Takeaway 3 – Distribution Automation Goes Beyond FLISR

Restoring outages quickly through fault location, isolation, and service restoration (FLISR) programs involving line switching are a key component of any distribution automation (DA) strategy — because keeping the lights on for customers is the most important function of a utility.

Four Factors Driving Modern Load Control Programs - Aclara

Yet, DA programs can bring even more value to utilities, said Mak Tarnoff, Aclara’s senior director of product management, if applied to a range of additional activities including:

  • Reducing peaks – Critical to avoid reaching capacity constraints on aging distribution networks
  • Balancing the network – Important when maximizing use of distributed energy resources
  • Improving power quality – More important today than ever, especially for C&I customers, and requiring visibility across the grid

Tarnoff added that distribution automation programs can work hand in hand with SCADA programs to allow utilities to orchestrate between devices for better voltage management, which leads to economic benefits to the utility.

“Managing voltage allows you to reduce your wholesale costs for energy,” said Tarnoff. “Another benefit is capital deferment – you can squeeze more out of what you have and don’t have to spend money to build out or reinforce current systems.”

Takeaway 4 – The Authority of Empowered Consumers

When it comes to engaging consumers, it’s not so much about where consumers live as it is who they are, said Nathan Shannon, deputy director of the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC), an organization focused on what understanding consumers’ views about grid modernization.

Shannon told AclaraConnect attendees that recent SEDD research, The Empowered Consumer, indicates that the motivations behind consumer behavior are as important as where they live. This means that utilities have to market their programs to appeal to specific segments who may be interested in diverse benefits such as saving money, or saving the environment, or new technology. Or they might not be interested at all.

Understanding consumer motivations can also open up segments to utilities that were never considered before. For example, SECC surveyed customers across all segments about interest in pre-paid billing, which is usually marketed as a low-income program.

“Only about one or two percent of consumers are signed up for that, but about 25 percent say they would be interested,” said Shannon, “We saw a lot of interest from people who owned rental properties in college towns and people who owned vacation homes. There is definitely a market that hasn’t been tapped for prepaid billing.”

Takeaway 5 – Get Ready for the Neural Grid

Technology is driving the energy business from centralized energy generation with single-direction distribution to a platform-based business with two-way energy flow – a concept encompassed in Navigant’s neural grid and energy cloud concept.

The energy cloud and neural grid, according to Richelle Elberg, principal research analyst with Navigant Research, involves harnessing through cloud services all available power sources including distributed energy resources offering cleaner, two-way power flow through mobile energy resources and multiple platforms such as wind and solar.

“In a nutshell, the Neural Grid takes the world’s largest machine—the grid—and gives it a brain,” said Richelle Elberg. “In this environment, data and intelligence reside largely in the cloud, managing the intersection of generation assets and distribution networks with energy customers, buildings, transportation infrastructure, city systems, distributed energy resources assets and more.”

AclaraConnect - Navigant, Richelle Elberg

The deconstructing of the traditional utility business model will result in many more players generating and selling energy, including company as diverse as Amazon and Google, as well as individuals.

By 2030 we think it’s a much more dynamic market, a more distributed model, so, consumers are buying and selling energy, whether it’s with the utility or with their neighbors. The energy flows are multi-directional, so you can be saving your energy in your storage, and then deploying it when you need it at home, or you can be using your storage energy when rates are high, and waiting until the time of day when rates are low and so far on and so forth.”

If you joined us this year at AclaraConnect, you know you do not want to miss next year’s event, which will offer more insightful sessions on trends in the electric, gas, and water utility businesses, as well as in-depth training on Aclara solutions and products. And if you didn’t make it to San Diego, please join us in Austin, Texas. May 20-23, 2019.

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