The traditional system we currently use for serving the needs of energy users is quickly going out of style. The energy grid is still relying on a system that was invented almost 100 years ago (hello, the 1930s called and they want their transmission and distribution lines back!). The old classic version of the grid has served an important purpose for getting energy to consumers reliably and safely, but today’s energy fashion is more demanding. While the old grid excelled at sending energy one-way from generators to consumers, the new energy grid needs to be able to accessorize by incorporating distributed energy resources (“DER”) such as solar and wind energy, active load management, and energy efficiency programs. DER will enable the development of a grid that is increasingly resilient, flexible, and adaptable to the needs of all energy consumers. In New York, a process is under way to try to bring these innovative new options online.

A modernized energy grid doesn’t happen overnight. States across the Northeastern U.S. are trying to figure out how to facilitate the transition from a traditional energy grid system to a more modernized grid. The Distributed System Implementation Plan (“DSIP”) process initiated by the New York Public Service Commission (“PSC” or “Commission”) may be one model for helping utilities make a smooth and efficient transition.

The Commission has required all electric service utilities to create and maintain comprehensive Plans detailing the processes by which they will transform the traditional one-way electric grid into a more dynamic and integrated grid that can manage two-way flows, is more resilient, and produces fewer carbon emissions. The DSIPs are a comprehensive source of information for the public and serve to consolidate several important pieces of New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (“REV”) strategy.  They are also intended to be a source of data and information to assist third-party DER providers with planning and investment. The new energy grid will require joint decision-making and planning between utilities, third-party providers, consumers, regulatory bodies, and other interested parties. This means that transparency and visibility are paramount to achieving a modernized grid.

The DSIP process is novel in that it has required utilities to make their internal decision-making more transparent and begin making joint planning decisions. This type of practice has potential for creating a collaborative environment that produces a constructive transition. The DSIP process has done well in New York to:

  • Provide insight into key decision-making processes of utilities, especially regarding the use of DER in addressing system needs
  • Provide a baseline for current data-gathering capabilities as well as capabilities regarding load forecasting and accommodating DER
  • Create a space for joint decision-making and planning between utilities
  • Involve stakeholders on various key issues

While the DSIPs that the utilities produced are important and useful, in many ways they fall short of what was expected of them. Some improvements that should be made to the DSIPs include:

  • Valuable data – for example regarding hosting capacity, DER forecasting, and DER impacts on the grid – has not yet been included in the DSIPs and the utilities have not in many cases provided sufficient plans for providing the data
  • Many of the plans that have been provided are a good start, but are still not sufficiently detailed or specific enough to be useful for the public and third-parties, for example, almost no timelines for implementation are provided
  • There is a general lack of description regarding how various processes, such as forecasting and making decisions about using DER for system needs, will be re-assessed and evolved as technologies and data-gathering capabilities improve
  • Stakeholder process has been utility-centric and lacked necessary oversight by the state energy regulatory body to ensure fair and meaningful engagement by all interested parties, including at the scoping stage of the process.

In sum, the DSIP process provides one model for states to facilitate the transition to the modernized energy grid, but they should look for opportunities to build on New York’s model. These first DSIPs were filed in 2016. Updated DSIPs will be filed in June 2018, giving utilities another opportunity to seek and receive the level of detailed data and planning that is needed to inform decision-making by other stakeholders and in other states.

Summaries of Important DSIP Focus Areas

Some of the most relevant aspects of the DSIPs are briefly described and assessed below. For more information about the New York DSIPs, read Acadia Center’s full Summary Analysis or the DSIP documents available in the proceedings.

Forecasting is the process by which utilities make predictions about energy load on the grid. Utilities also use forecasting to predict penetration of different DER technologies on the grid. These predictions have varied implications for what the grid needs to ensure reliable and safe power to all customers. The DSIPs provide a first glimpse into the calculations that utilities use and the impacts that DER are expected to have on forecasting. However, the DSIPs also reveal that utilities need to improve their forecasting processes and especially that they need to continue refining their methods for predicting DER penetration as well as DER impacts on the grid.

Utilities’ plans for accommodating and enabling DER on the energy grid are addressed in the DSIPs. As DER increase, their impacts on the grid increase. Distributed generation (such as wind and solar) for example, will increasingly be able to inject energy into the grid from various locations. The current energy grid can only manage a limited amount of distributed generation since it is currently only configured to manage energy flowing from a select few large generators into the homes and businesses of energy users. To optimize development of DER, third-party developers need to have detailed information about where DER can be accommodated and where DER might be most beneficial. The DSIPs provide important information about when and how this information will be available. They also describe their plans for streamlining the interconnection processes for distributed generators. These efforts will go a long way to reduce barriers for integrating DER with the grid, but the DSIPs also show a lack of preparation and planning for actively encouraging more DER. Increasing DER will be invaluable for enhancing resiliency and flexibility as well as decreasing carbon emissions.

Non-wires alternatives are DER that are procured by utilities to address the needs of the energy grid. Traditionally, utilities simply invest in more traditional infrastructure when the need arises. These types of upgrades are costly for the utility and thus for ratepayers. Alternatively, DER can be more cost-effective and can be used to avoid or postpone traditional infrastructure investments. The DSIPs provide clear analysis of the types of projects that they consider suitable for using non-wires alternatives. The utilities have defined a narrow range of projects that are suitable for these alternatives, and limiting the range of possible projects in this way means that there will be missed opportunities to address a wider range of system needs.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (“AMI”) is important for advancing grid modernization efforts. It will enable utilities to vastly improve data-gathering capabilities and increase their ability to control energy load on the system. In the past, meters were only needed to measure energy used within a time frame, usually one month. With AMI, meters will be able to report hourly or even near to real-time data about energy use. This information will be invaluable for load forecasting and for better understanding DER impacts on the grid. Utilities will also be able to share data with customers – empowering them to better manage their own energy use. AMI also enables strategies to optimize the grid, like demand response, time-varying rates, and active load management. These strategies are based on increasing energy consumption during off-peak periods and decreasing it during peak hours. The DSIPs show that all utilities are planning to implement AMI over the next several years. However, the utilities are not consistent in how they present their plans for AMI roll-out. Some utilities provide excellent summaries or even include their full plans in the appendix of their DSIP. Other utilities provide almost no summary and simply refer to other proceedings.

Electric Vehicles will be key for achieving New York’s carbon emissions reduction goals. New York has made clear goals for increasing the number of electric vehicles on the road. This will require increased infrastructure, such as charging stations. Utilities are expected to be proactive about planning for and enabling the electric vehicle market. The DSIPs show that utilities are implementing pilot projects, mostly aimed at better understanding how these vehicles are used and charged, which will in turn help utilities better understand their impact on the grid. The utilities have also jointly produced a plan for creating an “EV Readiness Framework” which will guide their actions for preparing for electric vehicles. The DSIPs lack any concrete plans for going beyond pilot projects to implementing any wide-scale infrastructure investments for electric vehicles.

The DSIPs include investment plans that indicate how and where the utilities will spend money in the next several years to begin the transition to a modernized energy grid. Generally, utilities are investing in new systems and capabilities that will enhance data-gathering, load management, and DER integration, which will in turn increase grid reliability and efficiency. Utilities also need to invest in improving customer engagement by providing understandable billing and secure data exchange platforms.