Grid Modernization

Distribution Is Less and Less About Distribution

As how utilities manage the distribution system evolves, the term itself is becoming more of a misnomer. Let me explain. Discussions about “distribution” nowadays seem to focus more on acquisition. From how energy is generated and delivered, to preparing a specialist workforce and being able to procure a wider variety of equipment and technology, a lot of effort is put into what the system needs to gain rather than disperse.

Of course, there is still a lot of (increasingly complex) attention given to how to allocate system resources to customers and in keeping a utility’s part of the electric grid balanced and reliable. Utilities are dealing with the added and continued challenges of a strained supply chain, cybersecurity threats, and shifting rules and regulations. With these challenges come opportunities to change.

I’ve heard from members over the years who appreciate when the American Public Power Association focuses on “the basics” of utility operations. Our technical and operations team does a good job of providing programs and informational resources that help public power utilities execute these basics well, such as through producing the Distribution System Reliability and Operations Survey Report every few years. This report is just one of several that can help utilities to benchmark their operational structure. Yet, looking back across the years of this report and how our programming has changed, it is clear that these “basics” are evolving.

In some ways, this issue of Public Power magazine is about getting back to relaying those basics — in highlighting the latest survey report findings, reviewing how to reduce system losses, and in keeping the distribution system reliable. In other ways, it reflects the number of ways that these basics are changing, from how lineworker apprentices get trained to how utilities are exploring non-wire alternatives and deploying automation and artificial intelligence.

As energy technologies evolve, utilities will increasingly find that customers and competitors might be one and the same. This is all a matter of perspective, of course. As public power, our aim is to serve the best interests of our communities, and as the cost of distributed energy resources comes down (and access to these technologies increases), it may be that customers will benefit from generating and using their own energy. This doesn’t need to undermine or work against a utility, but rather requires an adjusted mindset about what it means to be a distributor. It’s about exploring how to apply our expertise to be seen as energy advisers and making sure we’re part of the energy conversations happening in our communities.

As the APPA staff knows by now, I’m all for doing away with practices that no longer make sense — especially if it means increased attention to the practices that matter most. Operating a top-notch distribution system means looking at a broad variety of factors — exploring new technologies, making sure we are attuned to our customers, and continually evaluating what’s working and what isn’t. And APPA is here to support our members in each of those aspects.

What makes a system reliable and affordable now isn’t necessarily what will make it so in the future. Applying lessons learned today and laying the foundation for success — whether in daring to explore these technologies or digging into analytics to better understand emerging patterns — will make the reliable, affordable system of tomorrow. I look forward to seeing how public power will continue to evolve the concept of distribution and being part of the discussions on how we will get there together.