Redefining Distribution Dogmas
Originally published July 1, 2017
If Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison both woke up today, an often-told industry joke goes, Bell would be mystified by the state of telecommunications. Edison, on the other hand, would not only recognize our electric system, he could probably fix it too.
“In some ways, the joke is kind of true,” said Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services at the American Public Power Association. “We’re talking about the delivery of electricity, and when you look at elements like substations, they haven’t really changed in 130 years.”
Substations still sit on the grid, taking power from the transmission lines, transforming it, and transmitting it out on distribution lines. But while the bare bones might still be the same, some public power utilities are innovating and pushing the envelope — bringing design, analytics, customer focus, and energy storage to substations.
When a Substation is More Than Just a Substation
There was a time when the addition of an electric substation was universally accepted as good for the community. “They were not considered an eyesore,” said Hyland. “They were the industrialization of the U.S. coming to the community and bringing electric light.” But in the last 40 years, substations have developed a bit of a reputation: They’re the ugliest structures around.
Not so for Seattle City Light’s Denny substation. When it powers up in 2018, the substation will have a slanted metal-clad facade transparent at street level, with a ramped pedestrian path, a community center, a color-shifting wall, extensive landscaping, and even a dog park. Subtle, elegant and pretty are all adjectives that have been used to describe the substation, with many labeling it the “world’s coolest electrical substation.”
It all started in 2003 with the city of Seattle’s decision to reinvigorate a part of downtown that has since become the home of biotech companies and high-tech giants like Amazon. “Our last substation was built in the ’80s, when Seattle was still rather sleepy,” said Michael Clark, project manager of the Denny substation. “But the site for this substation is on the border of three major urban areas, so we knew the facility was going to be in a dense, dynamic environment that was going to get even more populated. The game needed to change.”
Seattle City Light worked extensively with the Seattle Design Commission to make sure the pedestrian experience of the substation, for passersby, was delightful and inviting. But as Seattle City Light settled on a concept, they realized the substation site required taking over part of a street. Per city rules, that meant they would have to show benefits and include tangible amenities for the community in their plans. As a result, the substation plan includes gathering places; public open space; alley improvements; and a community space for events, meetings and lectures. On-site solar arrays and a heat recovery system will provide 100 percent of the required power and heating for many of the facilities within.
While the Denny substation, through its design and amenities, certainly aims to fit into its surroundings, it doesn’t attempt to obscure its basic function. “We’re letting people know in our design that this is an electric substation,” said Clark. “There’s sort of a celebration of this functionality.” Many of the interactive elements of the facility — from the artwork and an Energy Inspiration Center to viewing portals along walkways for residents to peer into the substation’s workings — are focused on being educational. “We want the average person to go, ‘Oh, this is an electric substation. What does it do? How does it work? How am I, as a customer, served by this?’” Clark said.
A substation like this is a paradigm shift for utilities. “This is the first time we’re inviting people to a substation facility, saying, ‘Come here, connect; this is a destination location,’ whereas all of our other facilities were designed to say, ‘Stay out,’” said Clark. “It is completely opposite to what we’ve historically done as an industry.”
Giving Customers a Front-Row Seat
The truth about substations is that everyone needs them, but no one wants them, at least not close to their home or business. So when Kissimmee Utility Authority in Florida wanted to build a new substation to replace a 40-year old aging power plant substation, they sidestepped any potential problems by giving customers a front-row seat. “We really couldn’t lose the substation, because it powers all of downtown,” said Chris Gent, KUA’s vice president of corporate communications. “But no matter what we did on the design, it really wasn’t meeting everyone’s needs.”
So KUA embarked on an extensive public outreach campaign. First up was a tour of an indoor substation — the kind KUA wanted to build — at neighboring public power utility, Orlando Utilities Commission.
“Community leaders and our board toured that facility, and it gave them a real idea of what could be done and the aesthetics,” said Gent. Next came artist renderings of the substation — KUA insisted these be drawn showing the current environment and community alongside — which were used to create signage, educate various groups, and conduct presentations at commission meetings. As construction progressed, KUA continuously shared updates and milestones through social media. And finally, when the new $17.2 million Roy E. Hansel substation was energized in January 2016, KUA opened the doors for all business owners and elected officials from the area to tour the substation.
“It was a lot of hand-holding to make the community understand that greater reliability works to their benefit,” Gent said. “It makes the process go so much smoother when you don’t have citizen groups rallying against what you’re trying to do, because they’re afraid of it or they don’t understand.”
Involving and informing the community right from the start had a major benefit for KUA. “Everybody knew what was happening, exactly what it was going to look like, and how it was going to be landscaped, so when the time came for our utility board to approve and fund the substation, the community members became our advocates,” Gent said.
Public outreach has played a significant role for Seattle City Light’s Denny project as well. “I think most utilities’ approach is don’t tell the public too much; they won’t understand,” Clark said. But many of the sustainability features and amenities in the Denny substation came out of discussions with the community and elected officials. “I would tell utilities to let go of that culture: Make people your partners, and be honest with them, to get to the highest level of success,” said Clark.
It’s an area where public power utilities naturally do well, Hyland said. “Because we’re owned by the people we serve, we have a tendency to listen to them more.”
Storage Comes to Substations
No discussion on the electric grid today is complete without the mention of battery storage. While many think of battery storage as a grid-scale alternative to peaker plants, some utilities are realizing reliability benefits from situating storage on the distribution side, alongside substations. In November 2016, California’s Glendale Water & Power broke ground on a project to install a new two-megawatt battery energy storage system next to the newly rebuilt Grandview substation. It was touted as GWP’s small-scale toe dip to test the waters before taking a plunge into larger scale battery storage projects.
GWP stands to benefit from the battery in more than one way. Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute explained in a 2015 report that “the value proposition of energy storage changes significantly depending on where it is deployed on the electricity grid.” A midstream deployment location, like
GWP’s Grandview substation, can provide nine of the 13 value streams identified in the report, including distribution deferral, voltage support, frequency regulation, and resource adequacy.
GWP is counting on the battery to provide backup power to start its power plant generators any time a systemwide outage hits. It will also help GWP handle substation peak events smoothly. But ultimately, GWP is hoping energy storage will help to integrate more renewables by mitigating the intermittent energy associated with such resources. The result: improved reliability and resiliency.
When You Have Data But You Need Information
The rollout of advanced metering infrastructure ushered in an era of digitization. Automated substation controls that enable utilities to operate electric substations remotely can improve their response to power outages, reduce costs, and shrink the size of their facilities. But with that digitization came the deluge of data.
“The whole question right now on big data analytics is, ‘Are we doing anything with this data, or are we collecting it just because we can?’” Hyland said.
NYPA Digital Plans Include Substations
The New York Power Authority is taking aggressive steps to digitize its operations. NYPA President and CEO Gil Quiniones said the Authority has “made the decision that we are going to be the first digital utility in the U.S., maybe in the world, and we are well on our way.”
In October 2016, GE Power unveiled an agreement with NYPA to provide software to monitor, analyze and enhance the performance of NYPA electricity generating assets across its 16 generating facilities and electricity transmission network.
In December of that year, a new NYPA comprehensive central command center came online. The center analyzes the performance of the Authority’s expansive generation and transmission network and identifies potential problems before they can cause service outages.
NYPA said that its integrated smart operations center would initially monitor operations at NYPA’s 500-megawatt combined-cycle power plant in Queens and expand to monitor all NYPA assets. The center will be used to predict potential failures and unplanned downtime to increase reliability and lower operational costs and risks.
The center is using asset performance management software that runs on GE’s Predix operating system. NYPA is deploying the software to its hydro turbines and generators and expects that process to be complete by the end of 2017. The Authority is also rolling Predix out to its substations and expects the software to be fully operational in 2018.
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