By Hudson Sangree
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The challenges facing the national and Western grids sound like the stuff of movie thrillers.
Speakers at this year’s Western Reliability Summit, hosted by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, said massive storms caused by climate change could cut off power for days or weeks.
“We ain’t seen nothing yet with respect to hurricanes,” David K. Owens, retired head of the Edison Electric Institute, said in his keynote address. Owens worked to restore power to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The most significant hurricanes in history, in terms of duration of blackouts, have occurred in the last 10 years, Owens said.
“The grid has got to be hardened,” Owens said. “The grid has got to be smarter.”
Others worried about cyberattacks from overseas.
“A guy in Nigeria can potentially take out your network and every one of your systems,” Michael Lettman, a cybersecurity adviser with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the utility executives and regulators in the audience.
And some envisioned a science fiction future when millions of electric vehicles and rooftop solar arrays will help power the West — and potentially contribute to reliability problems.
“We’re going to see a much more dynamic supply and demand profile on our distribution grid” going forward, said Chris Campbell, senior director of grid modernization for Arizona’s Salt River Project.
WECC CEO Melanie Frye said the once staid business of providing electricity is getting more tangled.
“I am in awe of the ever-increasing complexity of the world in which we’re trying to deliver safe, reliable and secure electricity to our customers,” Frye said in her concluding remarks.
WECC, charged by NERC and FERC with ensuring the reliability and security of the Western Interconnection, holds its yearly summit to let industry leaders air their thoughts.
This year’s summit consisted of four panels that focused on cyber threats, transformational technology, the future of utilities, and changing norms and expectations among consumers and providers of electricity.
‘Waiting for the Cyber 9/11’
In the panel on cybersecurity, speakers urged utilities to prepare for computer shutdowns by practicing their skills with pen and paper. “We’ve got to have ways to fall back manually,” Lettman said.
Cybersecurity needs to be as commonplace as physical security for utilities. “Shaking hands with the FBI when you’re under attack is a bad idea,” he said.
Threats can come in the form of email attachments sent to employees. Workers need to be trained not to open files containing malicious software, he said. (See Expert Sees ‘Extreme Uptick’ in Cyber Attacks on Utilities.)
Moderator David Godfrey, vice president of reliability and security oversight with WECC, asked panelists what they saw as the biggest cybersecurity concern in the next five years.
Lettman said attackers could hack into a secure network through an online device such as a baby monitor or a driverless car.
“Cyber Armageddon” had already occurred during the attacks on Ukrainian government ministries, banks and electric utilities in June 2017. He also cited the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures that U.S. officials blamed on North Korea.
Utilities should assume they will be the next target, Lettman said. “We are all now security people whether we like it or not.”
Peyton Price, a Navy fellow with the Idaho National Laboratory, said it’s important to understand that numerous smaller cyberattacks could damage the grid as much as one major attack.
“I think we’re all waiting for the cyber 9/11 … [instead of] death by 1,000 cuts,” he said.
In a panel titled “What is the Next Transformational Technology?” SRP’s Campbell also recommended keeping up on “manual processes” in case of computer failure.
“As we depend more on technology, we need to be able to fall back when it’s not working properly,” he said.
He said he saw solar power and EVs as the major transformative technologies in Arizona and other parts of the West.
Utility-scale and rooftop solar will grow in importance in states flooded with sunlight, he said. The number of EVs is expected to increase exponentially, he said.
Mahesh Morjaria, vice president of development with First Solar, said he too believed solar would become a major force. It’s mainstream and inexpensive now, 65 years after Bell Labs invented the first solar cell, he said.
Chris Schroeder, with the nonprofit Smart Electric Power Alliance, said he sees the ability to aggregate rooftop solar and home batteries as transformational. Newer subdivisions can be built with both components, and utilities can call on those resources during short periods of under- or oversupply hundreds of times per year, Schroder said.
Storage will be the biggest driver of change in coming years, said Kiran Kumaraswamy, vice president of market applications at Fluence Energy. It can siphon excess solar energy from the grid in times of surplus and inject it back into the grid at times of peak demand, he said. It can also be a local resource in areas with supply constraints, he said. (See Calif. Needs Far More Storage to Decarbonize, Panelists Say.)
“With all of these things we see an incredible promise,” Kumaraswamy said.
Three utility regulators from California, Oregon and Washington talked about reliability concerns as renewable energy becomes a bigger part of the supply mix and community choice aggregators multiply.
Ann Rendahl, a commissioner with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said her state was on the verge of adopting a 100% clean energy mandate, as California, Nevada and other states have already done. (See Washington, Nevada Join 100% Clean Energy Movement.)
Keeping the grid reliable and ensuring resource adequacy at times of high demand in the West could prove problematic under those mandates, she said. “Washington is not an island.”
In California, 19 CCAs now serve load, including the Los Angeles-area Clean Power Alliance with 1 million customers.
In 2016, investor-owned utilities served 90% of peak capacity load in California, state Public Utilities Commissioner Liane Randolph said. In 2019, IOUs will serve 66% of peak capacity load and CCAs will serve 25%, she said.
It remains uncertain if the CCAs, many of which are startups, can procure enough carbon-free energy to meet legal requirements and peak load, she said. (See Calif. Lawmakers Reveal Growing Divisions Over CCAs.)
Wildfires, which devastated areas of California in the past two years, are the state’s biggest challenge to reliability, she said. (See RC Transition, California Wildfires Will Occupy 2019.)
Utility of the Future
In a panel moderated by WECC’s Frye, utility executives and an independent consultant were asked, “What does the utility of the future look like?”
Jeff Guldner, president of Arizona Public Service, said customers will expect utilities to provide the clean energy they demand without wanting to understand the complexity of providing it — while keeping the lights on. Gluts of solar energy without sufficient storage will make that difficult, he said.
Utilities will have to become more customer-oriented, “like Amazon,” Guldner said. “Customers think about their utility like almost nothing.”
Independent consultant Gregory Guthridge said the relationship between utilities and their customers is bound to become “increasingly complex.”
Southern California Edison is working to meet California’s aggressive clean energy mandates, but meeting those goals while incorporating millions of EVs and rooftop solar arrays will be challenging, said Colin Cushnie, the utility’s vice president of power supply. (See Calif. Gov. Signs Clean Energy Act Before Climate Summit.)
Cushnie said he worries California will have to deal with future resource deficiencies.
“That would be the thing that would keep me up at night — how to make all this stuff work.”