‘Still more to do’ when it comes to modernizing energy grid

Ellen Nowak, chair of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, says there’s “still more to do” when it comes to the state modernizing its energy grid.

Nowak spoke at an event in Madison earlier this month by the Customers First Coalition, a nonprofit group formed in the 1990s to protect the interest of power customers. There, she broadly defined grid modernization as “combining the old with the new,” though she noted several groups have different definitions for this concept.

“I think if you ask the 50 jurisdictions you get 50 different answers on what it means — but it doesn’t mean we all aren’t talking about it,” she said.

She explained that Wisconsin is taking a different approach from some other states, acting as more of a facilitator than a driving force for modernization.

“Some states are taking a more proactive role from the government or whether it’s their PSC or their Legislature saying, ‘This is what we believe grid modernization is, and this is where we believe it should end,’” she said. “I don’t agree with that construct; I think it needs to be driven more by the stakeholders and the utilities.”

That said, she noted the Wisconsin PSC has long been pushing for improvements that could be considered grid modernization: upgraded customer information systems, customer-centric rate designs, advanced metering infrastructure and more.

“We’re trying out different things, seeing how they work, and I think that’s the right way to do it too,” she said. “If you are going to try something out that’s new, and it fails, it’s better to fail on a smaller scale… so pilot projects are a good way to try some of these things out.”

Kira Loehr, an energy law attorney for Madison-based Perkins Coie, says “we don’t know anything other than we can’t know for sure right now what the future is going to look like, but it’s going to change.”

“There’s going to be new devices, new products, new services, and having the ability to adapt and be flexible to those is going to be very important for the industry,” she said.

Advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI, is an integrated system including smart meters, data management applications and communication tools which can enable two-way communication between utilities and customers.

Nowak noted that of the 2.6 million residential electric meters in the state, 78 percent have AMI and about half of those have two-way communication.

“So we’re moving along; I think we are doing a lot,” she said. “It’s mixed, too, among both the investor-owned and municipal utilities as well.”

Megan Dyer, manager of grid modernization for Alliant Energy, says the company has spent about a year working on grid modernization efforts, and that effort has been driven by the customers.

“We’re getting into a time where our entire industry is looking at digitization — looking at data and having insights to things we haven’t had insights to before,” she said.

To determine next steps for grid modernization, the PSC administered a survey to energy providers — MGE, Dairyland Power Cooperative, We Energies, WPPI, Northern States Power of Wisconsin and others — as well as stakeholders like RENEW Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Paper Council, Clean Wisconsin, the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin and others.

“We decided to talk to the stakeholders about what more should we do, what should we be looking at,” Nowak said. “What might Wisconsin’s landscape, what might it look like in 15-20 years? What should we focus on?”

The top priorities differed, though both placed AMI technology, interconnection of customer owned distributed energy resources, and identification of customers’ changing expectations, preferences, and behaviors in the top five.

The responding utilities’ other two top priorities were maintaining the safety and reliability of the existing distribution system, and increased electrification of cars and pumps.

In contrast, the stakeholders’ other two top priorities were coordinated distribution system planning, and integrated energy storage opportunities.

“So what are we going to do with all of this information?” she said. “I mentioned some states have taken different approaches — they’ve hired third-party facilitators, they’ve gone into universities — it’s gotta be structured. But I want it to be more organic, and the purpose here is to promote dialogue among the stakeholders, the staff and the utilities outside of contested proceedings.”

She wants to see discussion of these topics without “pressure to get something done, or to promote a certain agenda” so that affected parties can get “an awareness and understanding of other people’s concerns.”

“The point here is to just create dialogue among folks because I think a lot of us want to get to the same end,” Nowak said. “We might have different ways to get there, but if we talk about it we can probably get there a lot quicker and with a lot less pain.”

Loehr thanked Nowak for initiating this discussion, and criticized the contested case process for not leading to positive discussion that leads to real impacts, saying it only “creates winners and losers at any given moment.”

“The ability to reset everybody, get stakeholders to come together, not see each other as adversaries but see each other as participants in this broader process,” she said. “We need to foster better relationships among the group as a whole.”

Greg Flege, director of system operations for Dairyland Power Cooperative, says there’s a lot of focus on resiliency — the ability to recover quickly when the system goes down — both in the industry as a whole and within Dairyland itself.

“What would we do if the system went down? We’re spending time focusing on that,” he said. “Best practices around black start recovery, what can we do with resource sharing, backup, spare equipment, provisioning, these kinds of things in an emergency — all those things are important in what we call low frequency, high impact events.”

–By Alex Moe