Power Generators, Transporters, Utilities Warned of Big Changes Coming at Medellin Event
At a September 26 event celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Medellin-based ISA — Colombia’s national electric-power transmission operator and power-market trading hub – speakers praised ISA for revolutionizing and rationalizing Colombia’s power industry.
In a speech here at Medellin’s Plaza Mayor convention center, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos recounted the painful history of Colombia’s catastrophic power outages for 13 months during 1992 and 1993, which cut a full three percentage points out of gross national product (“PIB” in Spanish initials).
That event spurred ISA to adopt measures that have since helped to avoid a repeat of similar power disasters.
However, Colombia’s heavy reliance on hydropower – about 70% of the national total – makes the nation especially susceptible to occasional “El Niño” droughts (as in 1992 and 2016) that slash water supply to hydroelectric plants, Santos warned here.
What’s more, global climate change could worsen this situation, which makes it even more important for Colombia to deploy more alternative sources including wind and solar power, which feasibly could rise from a 1% national share today to around 15% in years ahead, he added.
Aside from global warming threats, the Colombian electric power industry is facing radical market changes that threaten the historic business models of generators, transmitters and utilities, as noted by several panelists at the event.
Notably, Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez was among the audience members paying close attention to these warnings — especially since dividends from the city-owned, multinational power utility EPM provide about 20% of Medellin’s annual income.
What’s more, EPM is part-owner of the under-construction, 2.4-gigawatt “Hidroituango” hydroelectric plant in Antioquia – which will be by far the nation’s biggest single power plant when it reaches full capacity in 2021. Future “El Niño” droughts aggravated by “global warming” could pinch EPM’s future revenues from that plant.
One of the panelists here — Navneet Trivedi, chief operating officer of Vrinda, a New York-based electric power consultancy – warned that while ISA has enjoyed tremendous, profitable growth in moving electrons since its founding 50 years ago, the future for ISA likely will be one of less demand for long-distance, high-tension transmission.
Many factors account for this forecast, including greater efficiencies in power technologies and the growth of distributed energy generation (DEG) –including home, office and factory generation schemes that for example may employ diesel/natural gas generator-sets, or solar power paired with battery or hot-water storage.
Such efficiencies and innovations help explain why (for example) the Washington, DC, population has grown 13% in the last five years, yet electricity demand over that same period has fallen 6%, he said.
DEG, technology evolutions and efficiency schemes similarly are likely to cut demand for long-distance, high-tension power transmission and “change the role of the [power] grid” in Colombia, Trivedi added.
What’s more, Pablo Corredor – director of ISA’s Medellin-based power-trading subsidiary “XM” – pointed-out in his presentation that future growth of electric vehicles (EV) in Colombia could have mixed results: a favorable reduction in vehicle air pollution, but a potential power-market disruptor. Reason: EV’s potentially could represent gigawatts of stored power, newly made available to local grids through reverse transmission (vehicle-to-grid).
While Vrinda’s Trivedi told Medellin Herald that “I don’t think vehicles-to-grid will be an easy solution,” Trivedi did emphasize that ISA, power generators and utilities will need to adjust their business models radically to accommodate the coming changes in power supply and demand.
“There are multiple ways” to address these challenges, he said. “But they [power-industry players] need to focus more on services than product delivery,” he added.
In a recent column published in the U.S.-based energy journal Energy Central, Trivedi explained that “there are at least three values/colors of electricity: energy, infrastructure and services, instead of one black-and-white value: kilowatt-hours (kWh).
“In their zeal to simplify electricity charges, utilities have made a monolithic unit (kWh) and when that was not sufficient they pushed [power regulators] for a fixed charge (demand charge). Even the vocabulary is wrong! There is nothing fixed about fixed charges — they vary and in fact now utilities want to see steep increase in them.”
On a parallel front, emerging technologies that could radically change power markets would benefit from carefully supervised demonstration-and-trial programs such as the “NY REV” project now underway in New York, according to Trivedi.
“We recommend that a framework should be developed and institutionalized for demonstration projects to ensure that NY REV [or a similar program elsewhere] is implemented with its intended benefits,” he wrote in a recent column.
Participants in technology demonstrations need to “publish methodology, selection criteria, implementation approach and monitoring mechanism for demonstration projects,” while “demonstration projects should clearly identify the need for bringing private capital, proven technology and examples of service models,” he added. “Quantification of benefits should be part of the monitoring of demonstration project governance,” he concluded.
ISA president Bernardo Vargas added in his presentation here that the Colombian power industry is heavily regulated. As a result, new-technology demonstration programs and new business models will require effective communications and close cooperation between the power industry and government regulators.
“We need to avoid obsolescence,” he added. “We have profound government restrictions on what we can do, so we have to work with government to be proactive.”