Smart grid deployment has yielded far-reaching benefits on the island of Guam — especially a big jump in customer satisfaction and much greater efficiencies in power restoration. There are more opportunities to leverage smart grid technology in the years ahead.
Art Perez, communications manager, and John Cruz, manager of strategic planning at Guam Power Authority talked about their smart grid initiative in an interview with the American Public Power Association.
Funded by federal grant and bond issue
Guam Power Authority received a $16.7 million smart grid grant from the Department of Energy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The utility then got the green light from its board of directors and eventually the Guam Public Utilities Commission to proceed with smart grid deployment. With approval from the Guam Legislature, the utility floated bonds in fiscal year 2010 to raise the matching $16.7 million.
The bulk of the smart meter deployment occurred in 2013.
Guam Power Authority spent approximately $1 million beyond grant and bond funding, mostly to repair existing meter boxes — at no cost to customers — as part of the smart grid transition.
Infrastructure for growth
Guam Power Authority's strategic planning and operations research division played a key role in moving the smart grid initiative forward. Cruz said individuals from the Guam Power Authority transmission and distribution group's meter shop, customer services, public information office, and computer services divisions were very enthusiastic about the transition when they learned what smart meters can do. The customer service department made an extraordinary commitment to the smart grid project for which Mercy Castro, utility services administrator, received a KITE (Knowledge, Innovation, Technology and Excellence) award for her leadership over customer services during this critical period for GPA's meter-to-cash work stream.
John Benavente, who became general manager of Guam Power Authority in October 2014, was instrumental in the success of the smart grid deployment. Benavente organized staff from various divisions working on the project into a task force so they could work together better, Cruz said.
GPA's Smart Grid Program involved many organizations throughout the Authority. The Power Systems Control Center worked extensively on the outage management work stream. Engineering championed substation automation. The IT Department interfaced at many levels with all smart grid work streams.
When people asked Cruz what the utility was going to do after this big smart grid project, his answer was "Build." The smart grid effort helped the Guam Power Authority put in place a foundational infrastructure on which to build new systems and capabilities, Cruz explained. "We spoke of trying to bundle uses of all the applications such as our AMI network," he said.
Cruz said the utility went from practically zero to three in the computer maturity model in very short fashion. "We forklifted a whole bunch of IT and contracted a whole bunch of IT support from Black and Veatch and others and it was really instrumental in taking us that far."
Becoming more customer-centric
Art Perez explained that the transition to a smart-grid infrastructure helped Guam Power Authority move from being an operations-driven utility to a customer-centric one.
Cruz said the utility saw a 13 percent bump in customer satisfaction after it rolled out the smart grid, which transformed customer service operations.
"The latest cutting edge technology is being operated and maintained by former meter readers, reconnect-disconnect people and customer services representatives. They became a wealth of information," said Cruz.
Perez said from the start of the smart grid process, executive management told employees that the change would not involve any loss of jobs or any streamlining or outsourcing of jobs. Staff has transitioned very well, he emphasized.
Cruz reported that at a University of Guam Center for Island Sustainability conference in 2015, residential customers talked about the benefits of Guam Power Authority's ePortal, which gives them greater control over their energy usage through smart meters. There are thousands of ePortal users and many are able to link use of various appliances to consumption and make informed decisions, Cruz added.
Customer outreach and choices
Perez noted that the smart meter deployment involved significant outreach to customers, especially for the move from mechanical to digital meters.
"There may have been some inaccurate readings due to the nature of analog meters, so a lot of that outreach prior to deployment was necessary for us to deal with any questions related to misbillings," said Perez.
Policies were formed in advance to help the utility mitigate billing concerns. If a residential customer was historically being underbilled, Guam Power Authority could legally backbill that customer. "Instead we decided to waive those costs and move forward," Perez said. If smart meters showed that customers were being overbilled, the utility credited them.
As part of its efforts to educate customers about smart meters, Guam Power Authority addressed health concerns. The utility's website notes that the World Health Organization has determined that the radio frequency energy from smart meters is not harmful to human health.
Cruz said residential customers could opt out of smart meters but only 26 out of 46,000 residential customers chose to do that.
All of the utility's 50,500 meters are smart meters supplied by Landis & Gyr. The U.S. Navy is a special case because they use Quantum meters but the utility is starting to change those to telemetered meters.
Picking the right partners
Cruz said when Guam Power Authority put out the contracts for smart grid, "I wrote a white paper that said, basically, we can't do this alone."
The utility appointed Black and Veatch to staff a program management office. Black and Veatch also provided ‘top-notch" IT staff augmentation, Cruz said.
"Partnering with someone who is knowledgeable — it may sound like a cliché — but it really will drive you" to success in smart grid infrastructure and deployment, Perez said.
SAIC/Leidos — which later split into two companies — also played a central role in developing Guam Power Authority's smart grid procurement specifications.
Faster power restoration
Smart meters in Guam have enabled faster power restoration after the island was hit by major storms.
Before deployment of smart meters, Guam Power Authority relied on customers to call about outages and report their location, as the utility did village sweeps to restore power, Perez said. Smart grid technology helped the utility pinpoint these clusters of isolated customers that were still without power. The utility could send out an initial restoration team and then have other restoration groups follow, to restore power quickly.
"We were very public about how the new technology was aiding in that recovery. It helped us build that confidence that we're restoring power as quickly as we can," Perez said.
Lower costs, lower fees
Smart meters are enabling same-day reconnection and start, stop and move services, Perez noted. This is especially helpful given the large transient community of U.S. military personnel on the island.
Smart meters are helping to make things more efficient when it comes to close out billing for a customer, for example. "Before it would take us about two to three weeks to assess a customer's bill when they wanted to close an account," he said. Now, with smart meters, the utility can do this in minutes.
Perez noted that Guam Power Authority has been able to lower its reconnection fees. In prior years, customers had to pay about $35 for reconnection but now that is down to around $10.
The fee could be lowered because of significantly reduced truck rolls for the reconnection and disconnection of customers. The utility used to do up to 800 truck rolls a month. "Now, we only send a truck roll maybe three times a month," Perez said. "So it's really freed people up to focus on other higher value things that have not been given time because of the reconnect-disconnect function."
Leveraging smart grid data and communications
"There's just a wealth of things that we're beginning to mine. Smart grid doesn't stop with — it begins with — the infrastructure for AMI and backhaul communications networks," Cruz said.
Guam Power Authority's engineering and distribution group is able to use smart grid data to make better models.
Leveraging the smart grid data, the utility has been able to lower line losses from over 7 percent to 4.5 percent. Every percent for a line loss, Perez added, equates to around $1 million for the utility.
The utility is also in the process of putting out a bid for grid analytics that will make it easier to access data, address voltage and other problems, and yield more savings.
Meanwhile, a project is under way to try to reduce the communications bill for Guam Power Authority and the Guam Waterworks Authority. "If we're successful, we would be able to reduce our communication bill by almost half a million dollars a year by just using the network that we have put up which has a lot of excess bandwidth," Cruz observed.
Guam Power Authority shares its wireless network with the Guam Waterworks Authority and shares reports on wells that are down, when real-time data comes in with power outages. The Guam Waterworks Authority has more than 300 facilities, but does not have supervisory control and data acquisition. The plan is for all of Guam Waterworks Authority's facilities to eventually have SCADA and share the same platform with Guam Power Authority. "All of those facilities will be telemetered through our AMI meter network's backhaul using ABB/Tropos and Smart Grid Fiber Network, which will result in cost savings," said Cruz.
Guam Power Authority has almost 415 ABB Tropos wireless routers and is expanding both the wireless and fiber networks to fill gaps that remain on the island and enable mobile workforce management.
How has smart meter impacted issues unique to an island power system? Cruz said, "We need to generate, transmit and distribute electricity to our customers. There's no tie line to anybody else so we have to be very self-sufficient."
Automation reduces the pressure on staff resources. For example, the customer service department's productivity has increased dramatically. "Their ability to answer customers' questions is light years ahead of what we used to have," Cruz noted.
Literally everything is shipped into the island, including fuel, which accounts for the biggest expense reflected on customer bills. But smart grid technology has enabled cost savings outside of fuel to be passed on to customers.
Advice for other public power utilities
What advice does Guam Power Authority have for other public power utilities that may be considering smart grid?
Think creatively, Cruz counsels, and plan on multiple uses for systems installed. Guam Power Authority will be using its AMI network for everything and to carry all its SCADA data. "It's going to become really prominent."
Guam Power Authority is one of six public power utilities included on a top 10 list of utilities that added the most watts of solar power per customer in 2015. The utility is going to install 120 megawatts of utility-scale renewables on a 260 megawatt peak utility. Smart grid will help integrate all that.
Cruz also said that utilities thinking about making the switch to smart meters should get plenty of help. "This is a utility-challenging thing."