DistribuTech, the country’s biggest annual grid technology trade show, is a good place to get caught up on the latest developments in grid edge evolution, from integrating distributed energy resources to planning for a low-carbon future.

Sometimes, all of those things are happening at once in the same place. That’s the case for CPS Energy, the municipal utility of San Antonio, Texas, host city of this year’s DistribuTech. 

Paula Gold-Williams, CPS president and CEO, opened Tuesday’s conference with an overview of how the municipal utility serving the country’s seventh-largest city is planning for a more “flexible path” to reduce its carbon footprint, in large part through tapping DERs at scale. 

CPS closed two coal-fired power plants in 2018 and is examining the future of some of its single-cycle, natural-gas-fired power plants, Gold-Williams said. At the same time, it’s reliant on large-scale generators to provide the grid reliability and resilience critical to keeping customers’ power on, she said — a challenge that’s going to grow as renewables make up a larger share of its mix.

“We have to focus first on reliability,” she said. “Solar’s great — you just have to wrap something around it to make it effective.”

Flexible Path is the name of CPS Energy’s strategic plan to reach an 80 percent non-carbon-emitting energy portfolio by 2040, with plans to increase the share of renewables to 50 percent of its mix, compared to about 22 percent as of 2018. CPS already has about 1,000 megawatts of wind power, and it got started early on the Texas solar boom with a 400-megawatt project that makes up the lion’s share of its roughly 500-megawatt solar portfolio today.  

This summer, CPS submitted its Power BundleFlex plan, which proposes adding from 300 to 900 megawatts of new utility and third-party-owned solar, along with 10 to 50 megawatts of utility-owned energy storage, to its portfolio over the next 20 years.

It also plans to rely on 300 to 500 megawatts of natural-gas resources purchased through markets run by Texas grid operator ERCOT over the same time, a fact that’s drawn some opposition from clean energy groups, Gold-Williams noted. 

To reduce its reliance on natural gas, now 46 percent of its portfolio, and coal-fired power, another 18 percent, CPS will also be relying on getting about 16 percent of its 2040 energy needs from “flexible generation,” Gold-Williams said. That’s essentially a placeholder for technologies not yet viable today, which range from demand response to the potential to tap the flexibility of electric vehicles. 

CPS serves more than 840,000 electric and 350,000 natural-gas customer accounts, or about 1.9 million residents, and that population is expected to grow by about 1 million over the next decade, Gold-Williams said. The utility has fully deployed smart meters with Itron, tapping them for operational benefits such as outage detection and restoration, as well as to “get information in customers’ hands,” she said. 

CPS is also testing out integrated solar-storage-grid control systems of the type that could help balance intermittent renewables with flexible loads. Its Fort Sam Houston microgrid project, funded by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Project Integrate, features a Siemens-Omnetric Group implementation of open field message bus, or OpenFMB, a technology standard for integrating DERs at scale. 

Itron CEO’s predictions for the 2020s

In his opening comments, Itron CEO Tom Deitrich highlighted this long-running relationship with CPS Energy, built on its acquisition of Silver Spring Networks in 2018, as part of the company’s push to expand from smart grid to “smart city” or “internet of things” (IOT) networks, linking city assets like streetlights, traffic sensors and air quality monitors.

Itron is involved in a large-scale smart city demonstration with its hometown utility Avista and its headquarters city of Spokane, Washington, which includes a transactive energy pilot involving rooftop solar, batteries and microgrid controls. 

Itron’s push into the IOT space mirrors efforts from competitors like Landis+Gyr to expand the range of endpoints served by their networks and thus their addressable markets. 

The increase in extreme weather events and disasters like hurricanes and wildfires will demand a strong utility response, Deitrich said, while growth in renewable energy and EVs will challenge existing methods of maintaining grid reliability.

At the same time, the increase in computing power available to the smart meters, communications hubs and distributed endpoints being connected by Itron’s network can offer “much more agile systems for operational improvements and for consumer engagement,” he said. 

The latest generation of technology from Itron and its competitors can host “apps” that can manage solar energy monitoring and EV charging on the network, or process data and respond in real time to grid conditions, as with its volt/VAR optimization partnership with Utilidata.

Itron’s latest partnership on this front, announced last week, will embed startup Bidgely’s energy disaggregation on all new and existing meters, one of many similar industry efforts to capture the value of technology that can sort out or pinpoint specific loads behind the meter.