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Getting ‘Smart’ at DistribuTECH: Exploring value of intelligent grids

By Bob Gibson

If DistribuTECH, a trade show and conference that for more than 25 years has focused on the distribution and transmission electric power industry, was once a place dominated by line trucks, substation hardware and power conductor displays, that day has passed.

“The term ‘smart’ kept popping up and not just around ‘smart home’ technologies,” said Mike Wilbur, SEPA’s membership manager, after returning from the February 9-11 event in Orlando. “There seems to be a real desire for companies to be viewed as smart (intelligent) and as empowering their customers to make smart decisions. As evidenced by our expanded mission, we are of the same mind at SEPA.”

SEPA Staff’s observations on the evolving business of keeping the lights on:

 “We’re moving from a ‘Connected’ to an ‘Active’ grid – using devices that not only measure and communicate but make decisions and take action in real time.” Philip Mezey, Itron.

• Lee Krevat, director of new ventures in the renewables division of Sempra U.S. Gas & Power, drew on analogies to the Michael Lewis book Moneyball, in discussing how utilities need to change the basis for decision-making.

Moneyball documented how the Oakland A’s revolutionized the building of a baseball team through the use of analytics. Just as baseball teams no longer rely on a baseball scout’s ability to gauge the worthiness of a prospect by how he looks, utilities cannot simply eyeball their system to stay on top of its health.

Utilities already have access to enormous amounts of raw data – “more and more data is coming to the utility from a myriad of devices and sensors, a season’s worth of data every hour,”said Krevat. What is required is a plan to know what data must be analyzed, and then to do that analysis “in near real time”.

When projecting the useful life of a transformer, analytics will assess 80 factors, and focus on 10 key attributes. Sempra is applying data analytics to predict performance, and set preventative and corrective maintenance schedules, at its wind and solar sites.

• Mike Varney, executive director at Bit Stew Systems, suggested that analytics can be used to address one of the chronic human resource issues facing the electric power industry – the wave of retirements of senior staff and the intuitive understanding of the grid built up through decades of service . Varney said that analytics can assist in developing software tools based on intuitive and experiential learning to assist in efficient decision-making and in building instructional tools for new workers.

• “My first thought was, ‘am I at a utility conference or an IT conference?”, said Deb Affonsa, vice president of customer service, PG&E and a first-time DistribuTECH attendee.

Insights from a Smart Grid roundtable:

• Defining what “smart grid” means is challenging. A better term might be “grid modernization”.

• Understand all the possible uses for investing in the smart grid. Otherwise the costs for smart grid investment seems astronomical.

• A utility that can stay ahead of the changes underway today is one that has invested heavily in IT systems, data standards, and staff.

• Change management is important for the smart grid to succeed.

• Build flexibility by starting with a solid technology and communications infrastructure and then build modally on top of that.

• Move away from silos and create blended teams that include engineers, technology folks, operations and information technology.

Other takeaways:

• Utility-managed microgrids present a great opportunity to pilot new Distributed Energy Resource Management system communication and control technologies that limit operational risk exposure, as long as the customer/technology partner is willing to accept a few “bumps in the road” along the way

• Lack of consumer understanding of smart grid integration challenges was cited frequently as a major source of friction between the utility and its customers (i.e., smart meter roll outs by utilities fraught with performance inconsistencies that result in customer billing issues). Customers are being told that smart meters and meter data management systems will make the utility more accurate, efficient and save the consumer money, but some customers aren’t seeing the immediate benefit. Customer tolerance through the technology transition phase is low. At the same time, customers are asking utilities to integrate more distribted resources like solar and can’t understand why the interconnection of these technologies poses issues for the utility.

• Lots of push from industry for utilities to become distribution system operators. There was a lot of discussion about how to create effective wholesale distribution markets that work for all players.