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Utilities as first responders: How they’re planning for a more resilient grid in 2019

2017 and ‘18 were the years that the role of electric utilities as first responders — keeping the lights on and restoring power in the wake of fire, floods and hurricanes — came into increasingly sharp focus. At the same time, after every extreme weather event, discussions about resilience intensified.

The key question: How can we strengthen the grid and leverage new distributed technologies, such as solar and storage, so our power systems can better withstand and recover from these natural catastrophes?

This question has become especially important to me over the past two years as I watched from the East Coast as my home state of California battled a multitude of destructive wildfires. The Thomas Fire, which remains one of the largest wildfires in California’s history, took more than a month to fully contain and came dangerously close to where my family still lives in Santa Barbara.

With the Thomas Fire in mind, as well as the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, Maria and Florence, I wanted to see what utilities are actually doing, on the ground, to plan for and shore up the resilience of their systems.

Driven by this personal concern, I reached out to a diverse group of members of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and asked them what resiliency measures they had already taken or were planning and budgeting for in 2019.  I expected answers focusing on new technology — such as drones or microgrids. Instead, I found a very thoughtful approach to new technologies as utilities evaluate and deploy these resources to strengthen local distribution systems.

Improving resilience by strengthening local distribution systems is a priority for many utilities.

In other words, the focus seems to be less on bells and whistles, and more on the poles and wires that keep electrons flowing to homes and businesses in a community.

“It’s easy to be enchanted by all of the technology opportunities that are out there,” said Bryan Hannegan, CEO of Holy Cross Energy, an electric cooperative in Colorado. “But it behooves the utility to really have a clear view of what its strategic objectives are before jumping feet first into a technology investment.”

An early adopter of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) — commonly called “smart meters” — Holy Cross Energy is focused on becoming an energy services company for its members, Hannegan said. The co-op recently installed computer tablets in all of their line trucks with the goal of cutting response times and providing real-time updates to their geographical information system (GIS) database. The resulting robust snapshot of the system could be critical in the event of outages caused by extreme weather.

But, not all utilities — especially small co-ops and municipal utilities — have the resources or support for major investments in new technology, however committed to resilience they may be. Thus, many of the utility executives and technology providers I spoke with counseled taking a more incremental approach.

The key points here were, first, to begin planning based on the condition and specifics of your system right now, and second, to look internally to tap the expertise and insights of your own employees.

“Solutions come from the ground up,” said Clay Koplin, CEO of Cordova Electric Cooperative in Alaska.

Smart grid, resilient grid

Perhaps reflecting that ground-up approach, the majority of U.S. utilities I spoke with were focused on hardening their systems and making them more resilient via investments in smart grid technology.  Data and communications systems — such as AMI and GIS — were at the top of many lists, specifically chosen to give utilities better visibility and control over their distribution systems. Data from these smart grid technologies also provide customer value and service that may be central to evolving utility business models.

Beyond resilience benefits, focusing on AMI and other smart grid systems “is a way to pivot the utility’s business model away from being a wires company to being more of an energy service provider,” Hannegan said.

Partnerships with solution providers are one way to navigate the costs and complexities of deploying new technologies. For example, technology developer Itron offers its utility partners a range of networks, meters, sensors and analytics to help improve operational efficiency.  In one instance, the company said, its AMI and grid modernization solutions helped a utility restore 99 percent of customer outages within 48 hours of major Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew in 2016.

Xcel Energy is investing in new technologies and services through the utility’s involvement in Energy Impact Partners, a collaborative strategic investment fund backed by an international group of utilities. The fund provides capital to companies developing new technologies to improve utility operations, customer efficiency and sustainable generation.

One such service is a mobile workforce solution for mutual aid and storm recovery. With this model for “national mutual aid,” utilities can access a platform for coordinating and aligning crews who travel from other areas to assist with storm response.

Xcel is also looking at advanced analytics and data, specifically using geospatial or satellite data combined with other information to target at-risk assets of various types before and after storms. With technology that can identify dead trees or fast-growing vegetation, Xcel Energy believes utilities can develop proactive strategies for vegetation management to prevent damage to poles and wires caused by a natural disaster.

Systems and apps for vegetation management — to prevent the downed wires storm-damaged trees can cause — are another emerging trend.

Tampa Electric Company (TECO) is another one of the many utilities budgeting for, and deploying smart grid data systems, specifically AMI and advanced distribution management systems (ADMS).

“Having smart devices deployed in the field is important,” said Kenneth Hernandez, Business Development Manager at the utility. “But just as important is having the requisite software to analyze, monitor and control a multitude of complex, operational issues which could affect our customers.”

The long-term value proposition

The focus on building resilience through advanced information technology (IT) and analytics also included operational IT systems such as outage management systems (OMS) and distributed energy resource management systems (DERMS). A DERMS provides more advanced control of the distribution grid, which can be essential in the aftermath of an extreme weather event or even during something as simple as a cloud cover affecting solar output.

“When recovering from a natural disaster, a utility needs to tap into all the resources it can, as some of its infrastructure may be offline,” said Chris Ashley, Vice President of Utility Sales at EnergyHub, a DERMS technology provider for utilities. “A DERMS that’s connected to a variety of DERs spread across the service territory provides valuable, targeted grid services to help buy time as the infrastructure is repaired.”

Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) first invested in AMI and OMS technology in 2012, but even now, said Communications Manager Beth Tokioka, the utility continues to “unpack the functionality” of these systems.

The technology “has given us tools that serve us well during weather events,” Tokioka said. “For example, we can now see instantly when and where outages occur, and can better diagnose problems before sending a troubleshooter out into the field. This allows us to more effectively manage resources and restore power more quickly.”

Local problems, local solutions

A few of the utilities I spoke with are deploying unique, region-specific technologies to prevent outages within their service territories. For example, Anza Electric Cooperative in Southern California — an area that has experienced a number of wildfires in recent years — was looking for a way to predict weather that might increase the risk of these destructive fires. To do this, the co-op has strategically deployed five weather stations within its service territory and started budgeting for a forecasting and data analysis system provided by Western Weather Group.

The purpose of these weather stations, said Kevin Short, the co-op’s General Manager, is to assist in daily forecasting to “predict when it will be necessary and prudent to shut off circuits due to local weather conditions to prevent fire ignition.”

In Oregon, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has proactively begun to address the threat posed by an impending earthquake through a greater focus on base stabilization of its 500-kilovolt transformers. With “new feet’’ that provide both strength and flexibility, BPA’s transformers will be able to ride the tremors of an earthquake like a wave, the utility said.

South Carolina Electric & Gas, on the other hand, has been investing in a mobile app that supports the utility’s efforts to prevent outages caused by “unruly” vegetation. Using the app, the utility is able to assign contractors to trim and spray vegetation, then have its own employees act as auditors for follow-up and inspection.

A holistic approach to resilience

While the specific kinds of technology and programs varied from utility to utility, a number of common threads emerged from my conversations with different organizations. Over and over again, I heard that more than anything else, a holistic approach is the foundation for building system resilience. Three main points were emphasized:

1. Start somewhere

Every utility has a different starting point, so individual organizations should not be discouraged if they think they are not far enough along in their resilience planning and programs.

“Regardless of where a utility is today, they need to start looking at charting a path and coming up with a roadmap of things they need to do that are achievable for them,” said Scott Koehler of Schneider Electric. “That (can) help them down a path that today might seem very advanced and beyond their capabilities.”

2. Look internally

More specifically, ask for feedback from your own employees working in the field as to what they believe would work for the utility. The answers to making a utility more efficient and resilient can often be found within the organization.

3. Put objectives before technology

The outages caused by extreme weather more often arise from damage to a utility’s distribution system, rather than from problems with specific forms of generation. Certainly, off-grid technologies — such as solar and storage, microgrids and other DERs — have a role to play, especially for power restoration in remote areas and on islands. But, for many utilities, the hardening of local distribution systems has emerged as a top priority.

As Hannegan said, utilities should start with a clear view of their long-term strategic objectives as a base for their resiliency investments. Holy Cross’s goal of moving into energy services “drives our focus to certain types of technology investments,” he said.

Of course, resilience is only one element of the energy transition — and the changing role of utilities —  going on across the United States. The lessons utilities have learned from severe weather events must also be accompanied by self-reflection.

Utilities of the future will continue to be first responders, but they must also decide on the type of services they want to provide. Are they focused specifically on wires — distribution — or on broader energy services? Once a utility determines the role it wants to play in our evolving system, it can design the appropriate business models and strategies that will better safeguard system resilience and the clean, safe, affordable and reliable power all customers want.

 

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