Distributech: Learn, Experiment, Do

The curtain is closed on the largest and most successful Distributech conference in its history. At last count, there were 9,823 registered attendees with an additional 400 registered for the co-located Utility Products exhibit. Even as Smart Grid Investment Grants and ARRA projects wind down, interest in smart grid and what it can do is exploding. “Smart Grid” being more of a marketing term than anything else, a look into Distributech helps to define smart grid means by the actions people take.

For the first time ever, conference organizers offered a Commercial & Industrial Track. Historically, Distributech (Distribution Technology) was the home of big gray boxes, bucket trucks, and switchgear only an engineer could love. The C&I Track acknowledges that the smart grid now extends beyond the meter; e.g., customer understanding and interaction are the new resources. In one panel we learned that the San Diego Convention Center, all by itself, can (and does) deliver 4 megawatts of peak reduction to SDG&E virtually instantly.

Consider its next door neighbor, the U.S. Navy, with aircraft carriers and other ships full of generators. Sounds like the makings of a deluxe microgrid, and it’s all on the border of the downtown commercial district in an area currently challenged by a major power plant closing (San Onofrio). With a little integrated planning (and by integrated, we mean customer-involved), San Diego grid management looks to be increasingly intelligent in the coming years. Smart.

There’s also the change in color. Distributech used to be gray, depressingly enough that it occurred only in the sunniest of climates. There’s still a little gray, enough to look distinguished; but there is a noticeable transformation to the bright LED’s and colorful screens of sophisticated controls, social networking systems, and iEverything. It is the Digitization of Distribution.

The Gray Things are critical. Without them, digitization could not exist, and we’d still have an 1850’s economy. Digitization just makes them better. Digitization provides easier control, more effective maintenance, a better match to customer need, and mostly balance. Balance, as any physicist knows, makes a happy and boring universe. If there’s one thing we like in a distribution network, its boredom.

Show attendance was significant. The audience was large, but cynics might say that much of it was vendors, not the prized utility executives. Partners would be a better word. The days of monolithic integrated utilities granting multimillion dollar contracts based on commodity specs and lowest price are waning. Our communities are not commodities, and the smart grid community is not a clone factory. The business of delivering electrons has become a diverse affair.

Every region, district, city and suburb has unique attributes that affect energy sources and uses. By doing a superb job of matchmaking our industry will delight its stakeholders with the rewards of sound environmental stewardship rather than depress them into teeth grinding acceptance of decreases in living standards. Effective tools using accurate data will match local conditions with available resources while communicating results for all to see.

The coffee can stay hot, the lights bright, and the temperatures comfortable as we peer through flawless air to the far distant horizon. We can do it. We saw that at Distributech. What say you, NARUC?

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