Build Back Better: Just a Start for Electric Utilities

For electric utilities, Build Back Better needs to include imagination, innovation, and a vision of consumers expectations in the years 2035, 2050, and beyond. Electric utilities must enthusiastically embrace change if they are to continue to provide reliable power into a future with climate change.


Let’s compare electric utilities to bullwhips. Bullwhips are vertically integrated from the handle through the thong to the tip, like the vertical integration of electric utilities from the energy source through the energy transmission system to the customer. If you Google “bullwhip,” the first response will likely be the bullwhip effect, which is the demand distortion that travels through a supply chain when the variance of orders is larger than the variance of sales.


Electric utilities have focused on the bullwhip effect since the first OPEC oil embargo when the demand for energy was drastically reduced almost overnight as the cost of fuel soared. The bullwhip effect has been cemented into the electric utility industry with “just in time” construction of facilities and “used and useful” justifications for adding new facilities. It is time that these strategies be reassessed to address the future of energy usage, especially as renewable energy sources and electric vehicles become more prominent.


New Facilities: “Just in Time” to be “Used and Useful”


When new facilities are added to the electric power grid, they are often built as utilities see they are needed, or will be needed in the near future, hence the term “just in time.” But building “just in time” facilities means that electric utilities are always playing catch up. The most recent catch up activity is rebuilding electric transmission and distribution lines to minimize the possibility of electric power lines initiating wildfires, while wildfire conditions continue to worsen.


Additionally, when electric utilities want to build new facilities, they need to demonstrate that the new facilities will be “used and useful” for consumers. Public service commissions do not allow electric utilities to build facilities that they deem unnecessary. Their underlying assumption is that electric utilities are nimble enough to build new facilities in a few months, and adept enough to begin construction at the last possible moment. This assumption puts consumers at unnecessary risk of everything from wide area blackouts due to sabotage to wildfires caused by faulted power lines that need replacement.


Instead, electric energy transmission and distribution systems must be designed and constructed for future consumer needs, including needs that are ten to twenty years down the road. Future energy projects should be deemed “used and useful” when they are completed ahead of time, rather than “just in time.”


Lightninglegs: Imagination, Innovation, Vision


Lightninglegs is Prescient’s term for the imaginative strategies that will be necessary for electric utilities to prosper in 2022 and beyond. Specifically, this term refers to the study of conditions that last milliseconds, with impacts that can persist for days, which is often lacking in electric utilities.


Currently, the primary focus of regular utility planning and operating groups is steady state conditions. Few staff members typically study transient conditions such as fault induced voltage recovery, power system inertia, consumer load models, dynamic frequency controls, dynamic renewable energy inverters, dynamic EV chargers, etc. That’s why we’ve coined the new term lightninglegs to emphasize that study areas must be expanded to include conditions that occur in milliseconds but persist for days.


2022 and Beyond


Prescient’s goal in 2022 is to renew electric utilities’ interest in lightninglegs concepts. Through a mix of technical and informational articles, we plan to explain key concepts of the lightninglegs strategy in a way that not just scientists and engineers can understand, but also that politicians, reporters, and anyone with an interest in the future of energy can grasp.


Over the next few weeks, we’ll address next generation concepts including: electric vehicle grid impacts and dynamic chargers; voltage recovery, including fault-induced voltage recovery and staged fault testing; dynamic renewable energy inverters and frequency controls; and more.


Building more of the same at the same pace is not good enough. It is time to stop digging in our heels, and instead embrace enthusiasm, imagination, and innovation.


Join the conversation in the comments with your thoughts on the future of electric power systems. Contact us to learn more about our next generation power system concepts.


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