Scouting Innovations to Transform Power

July 22, 2016

The electric utility industry is experiencing sweeping, radical restructuring. Legacy bulk-power grid systems are becoming obsolete. As the bulk-power grid wears out, investment is failing to keep up with deterioration. Add on a growing population and more extreme weather, and the power grid is under tremendous stress.

In fact, the five-year annual average of outages doubles every five years. (1)

Therefore, electric utilities have been increasingly scouting for external technologies to help revolutionize how power is distributed. We have seen a growth in demand from utilities looking for frameworks and tools to make their teams more effective in their scouting efforts.

This blog is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the technologies they seek. Topics range from advanced distribution management systems to “grid edge” technologies to renewable energy and even related storage integration. I could discuss new composite materials for poles as well as many more innovations. But instead, I would like to highlight just a few of the technologies I discovered using scouting tools.

Getting Smart with Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)

As a former product marketer of the Internet of Things (IoT) at SAP, I always thought utilities had some of the most compelling use cases with significant market adoption. According to IDC’s ‘Worldwide Internet of Things Spending’ forecast report, the global revenue opportunity presented by IoT for the utilities industry is around $201 billion by 2018. (2) Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is fascinating when the two-way communication system of intelligent devices is a fundamental element of the “smart grid.” Smart meters are grid sensors that support demand response, voltage management, outage management, accelerated restoration, and overall operational efficiency.

The data enables an organization to make informed decisions; however, access to mountains of data can create anxiety among consumers regarding their privacy. I thought I would explore innovations in the energy sector that protect consumer privacy. My scouting search tool helped me find an article in the Journal of Computer and System Sciences available on July 7, 2016. (3) The article covers how utilities can perform data mining for advanced fine-grained data analysis, all while preserving consumers’ confidentiality, integrity, and privacy.

The article is fresh off the proverbial press and was the fifth search result presented. I saved the article in a repository to share and make it available to support workflow processes. You can see it in the screen capture below.

Wellspring Tech Scouting Opportunity Sample

Go Beyond Traditional Volt/VAr Optimization

As an experienced electrical and control systems engineer, I was immediately curious about Volt/VAr optimization when I saw it pop up as a way to improve efficiency and reduce emissions. Using the same scouting search tool, I scanned records in several databases, such as the IEEE and U.S. Patent Office, simultaneously. Found in the IEEE database, Southern California Edison is developing a “linearized local reactive power flow approach for estimating the effects of any switching action within a substation on the corresponding voltage changes at the substation buses.”(4)

Southern California Edison’s goals are to maintain substation bus voltages while minimizing the switching of VAR devices. The burden on substation operators is lowered, with switching decisions mostly based on local PMU measurements. Central coordination is also improved, and corrective actions are available whenever needed. This article can be compared to other Volt/VAr optimization articles in the search for the best fit for external innovation efforts.

Vitamin-Inspired Flow Battery

The last topic that grabbed my attention was energy storage for renewable energy. It came up in conversation last weekend among my friends. My village in Illinois made a massive capital investment in a battery system for our water treatment plant; unfortunately, the battery is based on older technologies. We wondered about other methods to store solar or wind power, both of which could have been used for this project.

Folks at Harvard may have an answer. I found this article while reading R&D Magazine’s daily e-mail this week. They have developed a high-capacity flow battery that is nonflammable, nontoxic, and inexpensive that is inspired by how the body uses vitamin B2 to store energy. This technology uses quinones for alkaline flow batteries. (5)

Check out the video. It may be very rudimentary for folks familiar with the science of flow batteries, but I thought the Harvard researchers did an excellent job of providing an overview of how it works. This technology is significant to integrating alternative energy into future smart grids.

Innovating the Grid of the Future

Utilities have always embraced innovation. In fact, innovation is essential to overcome today’s challenges and create future smart grids. Although there are risks, the risk and cost of not pursuing new technologies are greater. As a technology scout, I know how a methodical approach to tools certainly helps in finding and evaluating the next innovation. I hope the snapshots of my searches show that there is a simpler way.

What tools do you use to scout for technologies poised to disrupt the power grid?


(1) "Data: Explore 15 Years of Power Outages." Inside Energy. August 18, 2014.

(2) "Worldwide Internet of Things Forecast, 2015–2020."

(3) "Secure and Efficient Protection of Consumer Privacy in Advanced Metering Infrastructure Supporting Fine-grained Data Analysis." Journal of Computer and System Sciences. July 7, 2016.

(4) "Substation Local Voltage Controller Using Synchrophasors." 2016 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS), Koloa, HI, 2016, pp. 2508-2517.

(5) Lin, Kaixiang, Rafael Gómez-Bombarelli, Eugene S. Beh, Liuchuan Tong, Qing Chen, Alvaro Valle, Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Michael J. Aziz, and Roy G. Gordon. "A Redox-flow Battery with an Alloxazine-based Organic Electrolyte." Nature Energy 1 (July 18, 2016): 16102.



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