The distribution grid is evolving from a one-directional delivery channel for electricity to a resilient platform that allows for not only the optimal planning, dispatch and valuation for distributed resources but also the facilitation of a wide variety of customer engagements. This modern distribution system requires upgraded infrastructure, new planning methods and revised operating and maintenance procedures. Allowing the utility to serve as the platform operator facilitates and incents greater participation by distributed resources and customers, while ensuring electric service remains reliable and affordable. Evolving the tools and practices applied to identifying and addressing distribution system needs is an integral step utilities should take to achieve this ‘utility as platform’ end state that will advance the interests of customers, third parties and communities.
The capabilities of distributed energy resources (“DERs”) have expanded and their costs have declined over the past several years. While the increased penetration of DERs increases grid complexity, the role these assets can and should play as grid solutions has significant potential. As these new technologies evolve and mature, and utilities gain experience and confidence in the application of DERs to meet grid needs, non-wire alternatives (“NWAs”) that present reliable, cost-effective means for addressing grid needs should receive consideration in the planning process. To this end, a variety of stakeholders are engaging in dialogues regarding how to further modernize utility distribution system planning (“DSP”) to make these processes more transparent and the resulting NWAs more collaborative.
Due to the nascency of the DSP issue, this paper addresses process advancement only as a vehicle for identifying and developing cost-effective and reliable solutions to system capacity and reliability needs. Ultimately, however, a more transparent and collaborative DSP process could further aid stakeholders and utilities in identifying economic and equitable means to increase locational hosting capacity, improve interconnection ease and aid in DER locational and temporal valuation.
The utility, as a public service company and as the distribution system operator, can and should be making investments in the grid to maintain and advance reliability, affordability and equity of access. Many utilities are working to evolve grid planning and establish new regulatory and business models as they seek to engage stakeholders to facilitate the integration of a rapidly growing number and range of decentralized resources that may both drive and serve system needs. However, the resulting planning process must be streamlined, predictable and rational so it does not compromise the integrity of the grid. Thus far, no “one-size-fits-all” solution to DSP reform has presented itself. Nonetheless, foundational policy parameters have emerged.