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Between Russian hacks and deadly fires, the electric grid has spent more time in the national news cycle recently than usual.

This week, thousands of the professionals who keep the distribution grid humming will descend on New Orleans for their annual congregation, and we'll be there to watch. Recent headlines may take center stage, but we'll also look out for quieter grid edge trends that have built up momentum over the years, and may finally break through to deployments at scale.

Here's a quick guide to the themes we'll be tracking as we dodge the crowds stumbling through Bourbon Street and the expo hall floor.

PG&E's long shadow

California's largest utility has pulled back from public appearances since it began the slide into bankruptcy triggered by its potential liability for deadly wildfires. Its absence won't stop the scuttlebutt.

We could fill notebooks with prognostications about what form the investor-owned utility may take when it emerges from bankruptcy. The more grounded conversation, though, will center on how other utilities are reacting to events in Northern California. Do they see the conflagration as a freak accident, something unique to California's physical and political landscape, or something that could happen to them?

What lessons are other utilities learning from PG&E's turmoil? Has it prompted more rigorous accounting for fire risk, or long-term climate change risk assessments?

And will grid gadget vendors succeed in turning recent headlines into compelling product pitches without crossing the line of bad taste?

Grid modernization blowback

Nobody's really opposed to a more modern, safe and reliable grid. And yet, regulators rejected several major grid update programs in recent months.

Last summer, Duke Energy in North Carolina bargained down its asking price for a grid mod package that was heavy on reinforcing the existing grid. It got stakeholders on board for a $2.5 billion package instead of the hoped for $7.8 billion. Regulators still said no.

Last month, Virginia regulators axed Dominion Energy's version of a grid modernization overhaul, which also leaned heavily on hardening traditional poles and wires. Regulators didn't like the lack of clarity on the cost/benefit analysis.

These outcomes suggest a disconnect between what utilities want to buy in the name of grid modernization and what regulators think is justified by the public interest. Put another way, there's some work to be done to achieve a common understanding of what "grid modernization" should and shouldn't mean.

We'll be looking for best practices in how utilities define necessary grid improvements and justify the expense for ratepayers.

Distributed intelligence at the grid edge

DistribuTech is a good place to catch up on the ever-evolving efforts by utilities and technology vendors to extend the capabilities of modern information and communications technology deeper into the grid.

One of the most interesting and comprehensive efforts on this front that we’ve been tracking is Duke Energy’s "Coalition of the Willing," which is applying a new open-standards-based approach to linking DERs with distributed intelligence nodes, to allow edge devices to orchestrate their responses to grid conditions that central utility control systems are simply too slow to catch.

Duke’s coalition has grown from six vendor partners back in 2014 to more than 20 partners today, and its work on the Open Field Message Bus (OpenFMB) standard for device-to-device communication has been joined by multiple utilities. Duke’s primary test site for its OpenFMB work, its Mount Holly microgrid, coordinates solar PV, batteries, smart inverters and EV chargers with distribution grid equipment like reclosers, sensors and phasor measurement units, with a particular focus on testing the reliability of wireless communications between these interoperating assets. Expect some announcements from Duke and its partners at this year’s DistribuTech, marking its next step in this technology evolution.

Duke’s coalition work underscores the broader trend toward open standards-based technologies for AMI and grid technology vendors. One of the biggest efforts on this front is called the Wi-SUN Alliance, which is building an open specification for the field area networks served by metering and communications vendors, including the world’s two dominant AMI providers: Landis+Gyr and its chief rival, the combined Itron-Silver Spring Networks.

We’ve covered both companies’ efforts to integrate internet-of-things (IOT) capabilities into their service offerings, and expand beyond utilities into streetlights, traffic sensors and other "smart city" applications. At this week’s DistribuTech, these companies will demonstrate what they’ve been working on with utility partners including Hawaiian Electric, Xcel Energy and Avangrid.

The next generation of distributed energy-capable grid operations

The landscape of global grid vendors is a complex and ever-changing one, with big players like General Electric and ABB making some significant shifts in their approach to the market over the past year.

ABB sold a majority stake in its power grid business to Hitachi for $11 billion last year, and GE decided to shift its grid solutions and energy storage business units from its power division to its renewables divison, and launch a new industrial IOT software business, the latest home for its Predix data analytics platform.

"Big data" is a major buzzword at DistribuTech, with GE’s Predix, Siemens’ MindSphere, ABB’s Ability Ellipse platform and a host of other unifying platforms making claims to be able to optimize operations and squeeze value out of hitherto untapped data. Amid these reorganizations, global grid giants like GE, ABB, Siemens, Hitachi and Schneider Electric are busy expanding the capabilities of their traditional utility operations and grid management software platforms to incorporate the challenges of a DER-rich grid.

This outreach to the grid edge is enabled both by in-house improvements to the latest versions of advanced distribution management systems (ADMS) being offered to utilities, as well as by integrating the technology of startups.

Enbala, ABB’s distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS) technology partner, has been growing its roster of DERMS projects, most recently with Australian utility AGL in a 1,000-home solar-battery virtual power plant project. Pxise, the real-time, closed-loop grid-balancing technology owned by Sempra Energy, has launched a DERMS project with utility Horizon Power in remote Western Australia.

Are smart homes ready to serve the grid?

The potential for homes to morph into grid assets vastly outstrips actual activity to date. DTech is an excellent opportunity to catch up on how companies are closing that gap.

Currently, the best opportunity for demand-side management in homes revolves around smart thermostats. But a whole menagerie of smart, connected appliances are just around the corner, if the smart home bulls are correct. Meanwhile, residential adoption of solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles continues to grow, offering some real heft in terms of distributed capacity.

Linking up all of those disparate tools into a cohesive grid resource will take considerable effort. The mission requires linking up utility controls and resource planning with third-party aggregation and consumer behavior. The degree to which homeowners really want to serve as nodes in a disaggregated power plant remains an open question.

A few recent headlines reveal how companies are pushing forward on this point. EnergyHub and Bidgely teamed up recently to pair disaggregated electricity consumption data with smart device controls, laying the ground work for utility demand response programs that go far beyond the thermostat. Con Ed picked Sunverge to supply a smart rate pilot, which will give homes controllable energy devices alongside dynamic, time-varying rates.

Plenty of others are working toward this vision, and we'll gauge their progress since last year.