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US Attempts to Build a Resilient Grid through Non-Wire Alternative Approaches
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By Richard Fioravanti

After Superstorm Sandy hit the U.S. East Coast in 2012, stakeholders discussed the need to build a more resilient grid that could better withstand future incidences. The concept of a “resilient” grid wasn’t just invented in the aftermath of the tropical storm, but as many states looked to rebuild their grids after natural disasters or simply modernize their electricity grids, the concept of “resilience” has become increasingly important.

Resilience is different from back-up power. Back-up power refers to using generation to create electricity when power is lost. Resilience is based on building a grid that is more robust and can withstand the impact of natural or manmade disasters and either continue to operate or quickly restore the system in order to provide power to end-users.

What Technologies Are Key to Building a Resilient Grid?

From the generation perspective, distributed energy resources (DER) are comprised of technologies such as solar photovoltaics, small wind, natural gas generators, fuel cells, combined heat & power systems or emerging technologies such as electricity storage. The technologies are typically installed at customer sites at the edge of the electricity grid. The challenges of this approach are represented in the power flows shown in Figure 1 below:

Traditionally, electricity grids are based on one-way power flows. Power is generated (far left of diagram) at a single, large generation facility, transmitted to areas of population load and then distributed to customers (far right).

In the case of DER, generation can also be located at the far right of the diagram. However, the challenge this creates can also be seen in Figure 1. With generation located at the customer side, power has the potential to flow two-ways, which can stress equipment and operators of the grid. 

Using DER to Create a Resilient Grid

By taking advantage of generation at the customer side of the grid, generation becomes more dispersed, allowing operators to become less susceptible to single point failures.  Two states are leading the way in deploying distributed energy to build a more resilient grid: New York, through its “Reforming the Energy Vision” which was created in response to Superstorm Sandy; and California because of its desire to create a clean, renewable, more robust grid. In other states, the concept of building a more resilient grid is being incorporated into Grid Modernization plans and leveraging increased customer interest in deploying DER technologies.

Using a Non-Wired Alternative Solution Deploy DER and Build a Resilient Grid

The new acronym emerging in industry is “NWA” for Non-Wire Alternatives.  Typically, when a utility is facing increasing load along a feeder line or at a substation, the utility will upgrade that substation. Depending on the location of that substation, such as a dense, urban area, that cost can be quite high. 

Today, utility regulators are asking their utilities to look at alternatives that utilize customer sited distributed energy resources as a potential cheaper means to reduce the load. Con Edison created the model for this application with its Brooklyn-Queens Demand Management Program in which the utility solicited for incentives necessary to deploy and utilize DER to match the projected load increases facing the utility.  In this particular case, it was discovered that it was cheaper to incentivize deployments and rent access to customer-sited generation than it was to upgrade the system.  The solution was called a Non-Wires Alternative solution.

Going forward, the industry is beginning to see a number of these alternative approaches proposed across the U.S.  The equation is simple. A utility identifies an area and number of customers, provides the estimated project cost for an upgrade, then asks developers to “show a cheaper alternative through DER solutions.”

Due to market dynamics, non-wire alternative approaches may not be easy to deploy in some areas. The goal is to identify a cost-effective method of solving a problem, but it is conceivable that going forward all utility regulators across the U.S. will ask utilities to examine the cost of NWA solutions as an alternative before approving ratepayer dollars on a traditional upgrade. When successful, the approach not only creates a more distributed and increasingly resilient grid, but also builds it in a more cost-efficient manner.

Richard Fioravanti is a principle with Exponent engineering management consulting with over 20 years of experience working with emerging energy storage technology and distributed energy resources in both commercial and consulting roles.

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