Grid modernization: the key to providing resilient and reliable services

Nov. 1, 2021

The strain of these factors  they have the potential to cause a devastating failure.

Itron's Marina Donovan

Unexpected and inevitable challenges are putting our electrical grid into a vulnerable position. Climate disruption is causing natural disasters to become more unpredictable, stronger and frequent, while adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy resources is increasingly straining grids. Then in 2020 another unexpected challenge was added to the equation—the worst public health crisis in more than a century. The pandemic changed energy-usage patterns due to a rapid shift toward remote working; investments and long overdue upgrades were put on hold.

The strain of just one of these factors presents a challenge for our already aging and stressed grid; together they have the potential to cause a devastating failure. That is why Itron’s eighth Resourcefulness Insight Report explores perspectives on what’s stressing the grid today, and highlights actions utilities can take now to prepare for tomorrow.

Preparing for the Unexpected and the Inevitable: An Itron Resourcefulness Report” summarizes key findings from surveys of 500 utility executives and 500 informed consumers from across five countries—United States, Australia, France, Germany and Indonesia. This independent commissioned research details shifting perspectives on grid resiliency and reliability.

Tracking top concerns across stakeholders

There is a general agreement for the need to accelerate grid modernization, yet there are different levels of concern and varying priorities. The report found utility executives are extremely/very concerned about the grid and the impact of disasters (88%), demand from EVs (85%), integrating renewables (86%) and complying with environmental mandates (90%).

Yet while aging infrastructure and integrating renewables are top concerns now, in five years accommodating EVs (especially ensuring capacity at charging stations) will find its way to the top of the list.

If you dig into the data further, utilities are nearly twice as concerned as consumers about the impact of disasters. Despite the apprehension, utilities overwhelmingly say they are extremely/very prepared to manage challenges (84%), compared with less than half of consumers (47%) having the same level of confidence.

It’s also interesting to look at views by geographical location. Opinions are similar among utility execs and consumers, though both groups in Indonesia express higher concern levels and greater enthusiasm for EVs. Plus, when predicting what the top concern will be in five years, executives in many countries forecast shifting priorities. But executives at US utilities remain consistent: it’s all about upgrading the aging grid.

Making the investments needed to address top concerns

The good news is that both the private and public sector are starting to take action. In fact, there is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act making its way through Congress that would help inject much needed funds into projects aimed at building a more resilient and clean grid.

So where do we start?

For many utilities around the world, modernization is happening at the edge. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is the top tech investment currently deployed among the utilities—and across the key challenges addressed in the report.

While many upgrades have wide-reaching benefits, some are more focused on a specific challenge. Sensor technology, for instance, will be crucial for disaster preparedness and response. Execs preparing for the demands of EVs will instead prioritize residential-charging-infrastructure upgrades, consumer-pricing programs or incentives, time-of-use programs and load forecasting.

Where we go from here?

The pandemic caused unavoidable—yet significant—delays in modernization efforts. 25% of utility executives surveyed stated pandemic-related delays have been a top barrier to investing in grid upgrades. As the pandemic raged on; however, so did natural disasters—we experienced everything from wildfires in Siberia to unprecedented winter storms in Texas. In fact, one in three Americans were victims of a weather disaster this summer alone.

As the saying goes, time waits for no one. Stressors that test the limits of our grid are here to stay, so we must focus our efforts on accelerating grid-modernization efforts now. It’s a crucial step in preparing for the unexpected and the inevitable challenges of tomorrow.

Marina Donovan is vice president, global marketing and public affairs with Itron