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DistribuTECH 2016: “The Future Isn’t/Ain’t What it Used to Be”

February 17, 2016 / Jill Feblowitz / Conferences, Distributed Energy Resources, Microgrids, New Business Models

“Focused on the Future” was the theme of DistribuTECH 2016 and the conference lived up to that promise.  In the words of Yogi Berra (maybe) and others, the concept was demonstrated in Orlando.  The buzz words this year were “grid modernization”, with mention of transmission and an emphasis on the distribution grid, notably a distribution grid with distributed energy resources (DER) and microgrids.   From someone who has attended the conference since the 90s, while other conferences come and go, DistribuTECH continues as the “place to be” for business and learning.

The exhibitors have evolved over the years.  In the beginning the conference was all about the energy hardware – transformers, switches, meters.  In the 2000s, information technology began to penetrate the floor with software and service vendors presenting their wares for the utility industry.  Now, it’s a combination of energy hardware and software, with smart equipment supporting the billing, load forecasting, reliable grid operations, integration of renewables and microgrids.

Contacts are made and deals are initiated and closed at DistribuTECH, no question about it.  For engineers and techies, the exhibit floor provides the place get up close and personal with the technology.    Sponsorships telegraph a supplier’s commitment to the industry, especially important when the industry is in so much transition.  Then there are the dinners and adjacent meetings – of note was a breakfast meeting sponsored by Energy Central with a panel of heavy-hitters from APS, Sempra Gas and Power, Pepco, and Exelon talking innovation.

This year, I discovered how much can be learned from attending sessions on Integrating Renewables and Energy Storage, Microgrids and Emerging DER along with the traversing the exhibit floor.  Here are a few notables on microgrids.

Utilities are in the early stages of vetting micro-grids. Even though microgrids in the form of industrial parks, hospital areas and university campuses have been around for some time, utilities have initiatives to study them.  They are asking questions such as:

  • Can micro-grids support grid resiliency? Are micro-grids that have robust islanding capabilities (more than limited back-up power) the most cost-effective alternative for keeping critical facilities up and running? Would the utility be allowed to call on the microgrid for grid support in other situations?
  • Can microgrids work with existing equipment in campus-like facilities?  Duke Energy’s micro-grid demonstration of controlling equipment throughout the exhibit floor was quite impressive.  Duke, along with its “Coalition of the Willing”, is vetting the interoperability of the technology and testing out OpenFMB, a standard supported by the SGIP.
  • Is there a business case for microgrid as a customer offering? This may make sense on the unregulated side of the business, but the case is harder to make for regulated entities.  For example, a utility may not be allowed to make capital investments in equipment on the customer side of the meter, so would be limited to offering management services, with the customer or other entity owning the storage, wind, solar, microgrid control systems, etc. while the utility operates the microgrid.


Stay tuned for DistribuTECH 2017 take-aways on integrating renewables, energy storage, grid management and demand response.

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