The last mile is a term that resonates with challenges across various industries. Whether you're waiting for a package to arrive, checking your messages on a remote island, or looking to ensure consistent power for a city block, the intricate complexities of efficiently delivering goods, information, or energy to the final destination have consistently presented problems to solve.
While solutions have been deployed across sectors to address this longstanding issue, the realm of power distribution faces unique challenges, amplified by the lack of visibility and control at scale. Here's a deep dive into the 'last mile' of power distribution, drawing insights from paths paved by logistics and BlackBerry's innovative approach in telecom.
From Parcels to Packets: The Evolution of the 'Last Mile' Problem
In logistics, the last mile denotes the final delivery stage, which is often fraught with inefficiencies, unpredictable delays, and rising costs. The logistics sector has sought to streamline this process through the establishment of localized distribution centers, the implementation of advanced routing systems, and the adoption of emerging technologies.
BlackBerry, a titan in early smartphone technology, addressed the telecommunications sector’s last mile issue by employing a decentralized approach. Instead of solely relying on external networks, BlackBerry leveraged its proprietary infrastructure to efficiently transmit encrypted data, even in regions with limited connectivity. This distributed network model shows as a prime example of how decentralization can effectively mitigate last mile challenges.
The 'Last Mile' Challenge in Power Distribution
The last mile problem in energy distribution presents both age-old and modern challenges. The integration of intermittent renewable sources, such as solar and wind, into the grid introduces fluctuations, making consistent power delivery tricky. More significantly, while potential solutions are generating significant enthusiasm, a central issue persists: a lack of comprehensive visibility and control at large scales within the energy sector. Many utilities are quite literally “flying blind”.
Many proposed solutions for the modern grid—like decentralized microgrids, advanced storage solutions, and AI-driven load balancing systems—show promising outcomes in simulations and small-scale implementations. Yet, their efficiency becomes less certain when implemented in the intricate web of large, multifaceted grids tasked with serving diverse energy loads.
The Visibility and Control Quandary
Unlike parcels or data packets, energy—once produced—must be immediately consumed. This necessitates real-time decision-making, which is severely hindered by the current state of visibility in most grids. Without accurate, instantaneous data on production, consumption, and storage across the entire network, optimizing energy distribution becomes a challenge.
Moreover, even if we had perfect visibility, the control mechanisms within many grids remain outdated and are not designed for rapid, dynamic decision-making. Current infrastructure is not equipped to handle the swift adjustments required by the integration of modern renewable energy sources.
The Promise and Current Limitations
While advancements in grid technology, IoT devices, and real-time analytics are being heavily researched and tested, large-scale implementations remain limited. Today, reliable application of these technologies is predominantly seen with large electric load customers, such as industrial facilities and large commercial entities, which have the resources to invest in advanced metering, monitoring, and control systems. However, for average consumers or small-scale businesses, they still rely on traditional grid infrastructure, with its inherent inefficiencies and constraints.
Towards a Brighter, More Connected Future
For power distribution's last mile problem to be truly addressed, the industry needs to focus on two primary pillars:
1. Expanding visibility
Investing in advanced metering infrastructure, IoT devices, and real-time data analytics to provide a comprehensive, instant view of the entire grid.
2. Enhancing control
Modernizing grid control systems to be more adaptive, allowing for rapid adjustments in response to real-time data.
In addition to this focus, utility planners need to be equipped with tools that go well beyond traditional asset management and begin to identify where visibility begins to fill new and traditional data gaps in system planning. Drawing inspiration from the problem-solving approaches of logistics and BlackBerry's distributed networks, the energy sector needs its paradigm shift—a blend of technological innovation, strategic foresight, and perhaps, a touch of audacity.
While the future of power distribution holds undeniable excitement, our current reality necessitates a balanced strategy, merging traditional methods with the selective integration of emerging technologies. This approach places a primary focus on large-scale consumers, who also present substantial opportunities due to their significant load on the energy system. The journey ahead is long, but as history shows, every mile traveled brings us closer to the destination.
Ted Zalucki is the CEO and co-founder of Engineered Intelligence Inc, an infrastructure analytics technology company. Ted has 10+ years of hands-on experience in the T&D sector working within several utilities and as a consultant across North America. His expertise includes advanced analytics, investment planning, asset management, risk modelling, productivity, process optimization, construction management, design supervision, operations, and regulatory filings and defense. Ted’s background is in Industrial Engineering and Financial Engineering, he holds an ELITE certificate from the University of Toronto and is a practicing Professional Engineer.