Modernizing the electric grid, especially the distribution lines close to homes and businesses, is center stage in 2020. Utilities have to manage high reliability, new two-way communications and new digital technologies.

Engineering company Black and Veatch’s 2020 Smart Utilities Report outlines the modernization challenge. The report reinforces the intense pace utilities face just to keep up with technology and growing customer needs.

Intense money, too. Utilities were asked how much they plan to invest in modernizing the distribution system over the next three years. One-third of survey respondents said more than $200 million. That figure is up from 21 percent of respondents one year ago.

“Improving reliability” was the main reason for grid modernization (66 percent). Some 43 percent said improving operational efficiency or the aging infrastructure, and 39 percent cited the need to increase monitoring, control and automation capabilities.

Constraints in making the needed changes in the grid were: Budget (54 percent), competing internal priorities (37 percent), and having the right workforce (35 percent). ECC has written about the intense workforce needs in energy.

“Why is reliability taking center stage?” asks the report. “One reason is climate change. Last year … average power outage duration nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017, and major storms seemed to be behind these longer service interruptions.” Reliability needs to be addressed.

What are some challenges, according to the report?

Customers may say that there seems to always be a need to update the grid. When will it end?

“Much of the work done in the past five years was foundational,” says the report, “…with utilities focusing on studies, pilots and business case development. Most utilities have multiple technology implementations and initiatives already in the works. Grid modernization is no longer something utilities are working toward but has become a critical, ongoing effort that is dynamic and much evolving.”

As technology charges ahead, our systems must keep up. Check out the report for yourself.