Transformational Technologies Reshape Grid Modernization

Transformational Technologies Reshape Grid Modernization

This piece was originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of electroindustry.

Gary Rackliffe, Vice President, Smart Grids and Grid Modernization, ABB Inc.

Similar to the smart grid concept introduced by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007), “grid modernization” is both difficult to define and subject to varying opinions.

In addition to operational and information technology (OT/IT) deployment, grid modernization builds on the previous smart grid definitions and addresses several underpinnings:

  • Grid reliability and resiliency, especially the frequent occurrence and severity of storms
  • Grid efficiency, which includes lowering feeder losses, improving asset utilization, and increasing workforce productivity
  • Sustainability by supporting the integration of renewable generation and electrification of transportation, including the need to manage the impacts of variable resources, dispatch limitations, bidirectional power flow, and grid protection and control
  • Operational effectiveness based on improved situational awareness of grid disturbances, asset conditions, and workforce management
  • The ability to leverage non-wire alternatives and distributed energy resources as part of resource plans and grid operations
  • Customer engagement that includes outage notifications and estimated restoration times, access to energy usage data, advanced demand response programs, and expanded options for energy management

Investing Smart

Current investments in the grid were initiated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA, commonly referred to as the “stimulus”) as investment grants for smart grid technologies. The primary investment area was advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) or smart meters, which were deployment-ready and provided enabling infrastructure for advanced demand response, net metering, and operational efficiency with on-demand reads and remote meter connects and disconnects.

After the initial wave of investment, AMI funding sagged, but deployments have picked up again with grid modernization. The value proposition has expanded to power outage notification, enhanced customer engagement with readily available consumption data, and leveraging strategic meters for grid operations.

Distribution automation (DA) also benefited from the ARRA smart grid investment grants, but DA investments were overshadowed by AMI. The continuing growth of DA since the ARRA grants has driven a sustained surge of investment. Early DA projects focused on distribution SCADA and automation related to direct load control. As shown in Figure 1, the industry moved to graphics- based distribution control room operations with integrated outage management functionality. A key change was establishing a network model for the distribution grid to support simulation, an operator load flow, and advanced applications.

Utilities today are integrating  distribution management systems with distribution SCADA, outage management, and advanced applications. These include automated switching for improved reliability and volt/ VAR control for reducing feeder losses and managing feeder voltages, and creating advanced distribution management systems (ADMS). These systems also incorporate:

  • integration to AMI systems for outage notification;
  • customer information systems for account meter data to link physical account locations to the grid’s distribution transformers and an electrical address;
  • geographic information systems to establish connectivity and impedance models;
  • mobile workforce management systems for crew dispatch; and
  • sensors such as fault current indicators to enhance situational awareness.

The next phase of DA investment will be focused on managing distribution feeders with more distributed energy resources such as solar photovoltaic (PV), energy storage, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) address the volt/VAR management of distribution feeders with smart solar PV inverters and other controllable devices. They  also address the virtual power plant functionality of registering, aggregating, forecasting, scheduling, dispatching, and settlement for grid-connected DERs.

Looking to the future, distribution markets may emerge to support energy transactions at the grid edge.

Figure 1. Evolution of Grid Modernization. Courtesy of ABB Inc.

Driving Grid Modernization

Four transformational trends will drive grid modernization: renewable generation, energy storage, the electrification of transportation, and digitalization.


The modern grid will need to be able to accommodate renewable generation and integrate these variable resources into grid operations. At the transmission level, adequate transmission capacity to mitigate congestion and connect remotely located renewables will be needed. Grid-scale storage will be able to capture excess generation to avoid curtailment, and renewable resources will require coordination with centralized generation ramping requirements and spinning reserve. At the distribution level or grid edge, advanced technologies for protection and control and feeder volt/VAR optimization will be necessary.


Energy storage is a transformational technology since  it decouples generation from demand. Over 90 percent of grid storage today is pumped hydro, but most of the recent storage investments have been based on lithium ion batteries. Grid applications for batteries have benefited from the transportation industry, and battery energy storage prices have dropped by approximately 80 percent since 2010. Applications include capacity firming, spinning reserve, capture of excess generation, and black start capability. Storage can also be used as the grid-forming resource for islanded microgrids operating with 100 percent renewables. FERC Order 841 opens wholesale markets to energy storage.

Independent system operators and the storage industry are now implementing the order.


Electrification of transportation includes cars, light trucks, fleets, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, transit buses, and rail. Growing concerns over greenhouse  gas emissions have resulted in roadmaps to reduce 2030 emissions by 40 percent and 2050 emissions by 80 percent from 1990s levels. Reaching these goals requires significant electrification of transportation, resulting in terawatt hours (TWhs) of additional load. An important objective of the modern grid will be to accommodate these loads without contributing to the system peak demand or eroding the reliability of the network. Managed charging strategies, energy storage, and capturing regenerative braking from urban rail systems will complement the grid’s make-ready requirements to serve this load growth.


Digitalization and the industrial IoT are transforming asset management and operations. They leverage cloud computing, grid edge gateways and distributed intelligence, software for control and analytics, and connectivity to controllable devices and sensors. Early applications include digital substations, asset performance management, and digital distribution. Communications such as field area networks to reach grid devices and sensors between the substation and meter are also elements.

Utility analytics including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning are being applied to asset performance, forecasting renewable generation and net load, analyzing grid performance, and situational awareness. The digital grid is gaining momentum and may be the next industry term for its continued modernization, evolution, and improvement.

Policies to Guide Grid Evolution

Grid modernization will evolve like the smart grid and technologies will continue to advance. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) produced a grid modernization roadmap (see Figure 2) and the U.S. Department of Energy has a consortium  of national labs working on grid modernization. Also, battery prices are expected to continue to drop based  on technology advancements and the experience curve.

The other factor is policy, which influences utility business models and regulatory cost recovery. The GridWise Alliance has produced Grid Modernization Index 4, a report that looks at the policy and regulatory environment at the state level, in addition to the levels of consumer engagement and grid modernization investment, to track the progress of modernization.

The next five years will be exciting as the industry responds to challenges to be more flexible, reliable, resilient, efficient, and automated. Transformational technologies will reshape the grid as we invest in grid modernization.

Figure 2. This graphic shows that structural changes are occurring on the grid with more distributed energy resources and increased system complexity. Courtesy of NIST

  1. Supervisory control and data acquisition
  2. Volt-ampere reactive (VAR) is a unit used to measure reactive power in an alternating current
  3. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Electric Storage Participation in Markets Operated by Regional Transmission Organizations and Independent System Operators, February 15, 2018, asp#.XAb5TUnQY6Y
  4. consortium
  5. Grid Modernization Index 4, GridWise Alliance, November 6, 2017, https://gridwise. org/grid-modernization-index-4

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