The DistribuTech conference has seen many changes in themes and attendance patterns over the years, mirroring the inflation and bursting of last decade’s green technology investment bubble.  

But throughout all these changes, the annual trade show has retained its central role in helping to define the major trends in the North American utility and energy industries, from smart metering and distribution automation in the previous decade, to the energy resource-equipped customer in more recent years.

If you’ve been coming to DistribuTech for a while, you’re able to distinguish flash-in-the-pan trends from those that have simply taken some time to mature into real-world industry imperatives.

Last week’s conference proved that key utility initiatives long stuck at the demonstration-project scale are starting to yield results -- potentially helping vendors and utilities move more quickly into broad commercial-scale deployment.

The frontier of the grid edge is starting to become settled.

Utilities are showing that distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) and demand response management systems (DRMS) are capable of putting customer-sited energy assets like solar PV, energy storage and responsive demand into use.

At the same time, the growth of microgrids -- a broad term that can include everything from self-powered campuses to cutting-edge distributed energy integrations -- are becoming viable participants in more advanced utility operations platforms and grid markets.

“A lot of the things we were talking about three to four years ago -- DERMS and DRMS and microgrids, and all these things on the horizon -- we’re starting to see people talk about their successes,” noted Chip Scott, an OT/IT expert at PA Consulting Group.

Scott has been coming to the show since the early '90s, back when “it was really a hardware show,” he said. “Over time, it went from hardware to software. Now all the services companies are here.”

To be sure, the roster of attendees has changed over time. But the broader trend at DistribuTech remains the push among utilities to bring their businesses up to speed with cloud computing, distributed generation and the internet of things, while also showing a healthy sense of skepticism toward new vendors offering big promises about performance.

Examples of these changes were everywhere during the week-long round of demonstrations, breakout conferences and “utility university” sessions in Orlando. Duke Energy’s “Coalition of the Willing” -- a group of big grid and tech vendors agreeing to make their hardware and software compatible with an emerging standard for edge communications and computing known as OpenFMB -- has grown from six to 25 members.

For the second year in a row, the group demonstrated real-time edge-of-network device interoperability on the showroom floor -- demonstrations being matched by lab and field tests from North Carolina to Colorado to California. This is an important trend for an industry that’s long been beholden to proprietary vendor technologies and costly and complicated systems integration challenges.

While many utilities aren’t facing the deep penetration of distributed energy resources (DERs) that require this kind of edge-of-network interoperability, the first movers will be crucial for proving out these concepts in the real world. And as utilities prove to themselves that they can make this next-generation technology work for their operations, “the hardware and software players are coming along,” said Scott.  

This trend was on display at last week’s conference. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) contender Itron and networking partner Cisco were the first to unveil a Linux-programmable grid router at the 2014 DistribuTech conference, for example. But this fundamental shift from proprietary to open-source interoperability is now becoming the norm for AMI competitors -- Silver Spring Networks unveiled its Linux-enabled router in November, and Landis+Gyr announced a similar product at last week’s show.

Big grid vendors are also combining emerging technologies like grid-scale lithium-ion batteries and power electronics controls into their portfolios. Schneider Electric announced a big microgrid project at its Boston One campus, complete with PV from REC Solar and its own “EcoBlade” modular lithium-ion battery storage systems, for example. Siemens, which is also making a push into microgrids, is layering its feeder automation and FLISR capabilities into the volt/VAR optimization platform of partner Utilidata, giving it a path to markets being colonized by the startup.

On the first day of the DistribuTech conference, Southern California Edison put out a call for vendors to support a similar push toward future technology interoperability at the software level, via its “grid management system” platform. Simply put, the big utility is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years to modernize its grid to incorporate distributed, customer-sited DERs -- and it wants that system to be very different from the siloed software platforms of the past.

Of course, utilities are leery of investing in new software offerings too early in the adoption cycle, Scott noted. ”These are bigger systems that are foundational, and the customers we’re talking to want to know who’s going to be there” in the years ahead.

At the same time, a lot of utilities are trying to maximize the lifespans of their software and hardware investments. That means that new technologies must be built to integrate legacy systems into ongoing operations for years to come.This kind of limitation can lead to far longer waiting periods for new technologies than are typical for vendors working in other industries like e-commerce or telecommunications. Take the example of “big data” analytics platforms -- a major part of the buzz at DistribuTech conferences over the past five years, but one that has not yet translated into wholesale adoption and investment in the utility sector.

“I’m seeing a number of customers biting off on data analytics,” Scott said. “But it’s on a very specific need,” such as non-technical loss detection, (i.e., energy theft detection), or in analyzing the near-term impact of high penetration of rooftop solar and distributed energy resources on grid stability.

At the same time, data is flowing to utilities from sources beyond their traditional purview, as evidenced by Enphase’s launch of a service that pulls data from its rooftop PV panel microinverters and makes it available to utilities that want more visibility into their distribution grids.

On a more advanced front, U.K. startup Smarter Grid Solutions and Cincinnati-based software vendor Integral Analytics are combining real-time DER control and long-term distribution grid planning for utilities in states on the forefront of the distributed energy revolution, such as California and New York.

“This is the classic IT-OT integration challenge,” Scott said. “And let’s not forget communications -- as they put more technology and devices in the field, can they support it?”

Finally, another issue is the rising importance of the utility customer in the world of distributed energy. Large-scale commercial and industrial (C&I) customers are seeing increasing incentive to generate and manage their own energy through microgrids or managed energy services. At the same time, would-be DER aggregators like SolarCity and Tesla are threatening to erode utility energy revenues on the mass-market residential side as well.

Relatively few utilities are facing immediate pressure from this trend, which the Rocky Mountain Institute has termed “load defection.” But for some utilities, such as those in Germany or Hawaii, these pressures are becoming acute. Ultimately, it is important for all utilities to monitor these geographies as certain aspects may apply to their own jurisdictions.

For this reason, at DistribuTech this year, PA Consulting unveiled its Next Generation Utility Thought Leadership Series, alongside GTM, to explore the future of the electricity business. 

Utilities that presume their future business will mirror the past won’t be able to keep up with the radical changes underway. And this year’s DistribuTech proved those changes are happening faster than ever.

This article is part of a Next Generation Utility series at GTM supported by PA Consulting. Find more news and analysis on the subject here.