The electric utility industry is undergoing dramatic change. As new technologies emerge, public power utilities face new customer expectations and new opportunities to use technology to improve services and operations.
From handling dynamic load to connecting with equipment and improving reliability, electric utilities increasingly turn to technology to transform them into the utilities of the future.
Anticipating customer needs
Before Bryan Texas Utilities installed advanced metering infrastructure in 2012, the start and end of each college semester was pure chaos. BTU’s service area includes a large portion of students from Texas A&M and Blinn College, which means huge seasonal migrations.
“It can be Armageddon when you’re trying to do 750 move-in and move-outs in a day,” said David Werley, executive director of business and customer operations at BTU.
Before installing AMI, this meant sending staff and a truck to each site to manually turn the meter on or off. Now BTU has the ability to turn meters on and off remotely. “Since then we’ve done very near that number in an automated fashion, and you’d never know it. It’s just happening,” said Werley.
Outside of being able to more easily manage the crowds of college students, the ability to turn on and monitor meters remotely has given BTU, which covers a large geographic footprint, countless savings in labor and gas that had been spent on meter reads. Those savings are passed on to the customers, as are countless other benefits, including those of the cost-of-service analyses that BTU is now able to do with a high degree of accuracy. Werley said the biggest benefit is increased safety, as the technology allows staff to avoid going into customers’ backyards and reduces driving time.
“People are reliant more now than ever on electricity … 10 years ago, if you lost power for two or three days it turns into a camping trip,” said Chris Mieckowski, the global director of solutions portfolio marketing at Siemens Power and Gas. “Resilience, reliability — those are the names of the game now. Before, it used to be efficiency and what are the megawatts we’re making.”
As a result, today’s customers have a very low tolerance for brownouts and blackouts.
Increased reliability is why BTU made instituting an outage management system a key priority when installing its advanced metering infrastructure. At BTU’s systems operation control center, an electronic map displays every meter on the system. If even a single meter stops functioning properly, the utility can send a team out to fix it before the customer even knows there’s an issue. During an outage, that capability is crucial.
“We can pick the low-hanging fruit to get bigger groups of customers back on. … You do not have those capabilities without a meter that does not tell you that it’s out,” said Werley.
Upgrading to a new approach
“Ten years ago, the energy landscape was completely different,” said Mieckowski. “I don’t want to say things were better, but things were simpler.”
Planning future growth used to be fairly straightforward, explained Mieckowski, as a utility could draw a direct correlation between projected population and demand. The generation side was equally stable, thanks to the reliability of generating power from coal and nuclear sources, the big players at the time.
Once regulations and subsidies started pushing in the direction of renewable energy, that all started to change. Many of the technologies that are now starting to take off in the public power world came about largely to help manage the challenges that come with a power source that can’t be as easily controlled and relied upon.
When California public power utility Glendale Water and Power decided to renovate the Grandview Substation, which was built in 1939, the upgraded and improved equipment cleared up a significant physical footprint on the property. There was also unused property next door.
With this space, GWP saw an opportunity to branch into an area it hadn’t explored before: battery storage. GWP took advantage of this spare area to install the two-megawatt Battery and Energy Storage System (BESS).
“It’s akin to a test laboratory,” said Steve Zurn, general manager of GWP. He thinks that batteries are going to become an everyday, integral part of the electric utility industry. “So, let’s put this small project in and learn from it, and see where the pitfalls are, and see if we can overcome those, and then as we expand it, we’ll be that much better for the effort.”
BESS is not simply a low-stakes training facility, however. The substation serves the heart of the region’s commercial and industrial sector, including The Walt Disney Co., as well as residential customers.
The battery industry is rapidly evolving, which creates some unknowns when planning new projects. GWP’s Grayson power plant, built in 1941, isn’t much younger than the Grandview station and is next on the list for a full upgrade. When GWP started planning the Grayson upgrade project four years ago, battery storage prices and capabilities were in a whole different world than they are today. Originally, GWP budgeted for the storage component to be $1 million per megawatt, and now that’s down to roughly $500,000 per megawatt. GWP restructured its plans to incorporate even more of the rapidly improving technology.
““We want to be progressive and to take advantage of this clean energy technology,” said Zurn. “At the same time, we need to be conservative in our approach with what is a very new technology to our industry. We want to see the potential impacts from an operational perspective and ultimately ensure that we will continue to provide a safe, reliable and cost-effective service to our customers.”
Manufacturers estimate that these batteries and converters each have around a 10-year life span, but there isn’t much data on how accurate that number is out in the field. Investor-owned utilities in California, including Southern California Edison and PG&E, have put in large installations, but only over the past two years. Utilities don’t yet know how heavy usage versus gentler wear-and-tear might affect life span or impact plans for repair and battery replacement.
One of the main goals GWP has for the projects is tying the battery system to a renewable energy source whenever possible.
“If we’re going to put a battery storage unit in, it makes a lot of sense that we’re energizing those batteries with renewable energy,” said Zurn. “If we’re just energizing them off thermal generation, it seems to defeat the purpose of integrating a renewable plant.”
Thinking like a tech company
When Gil Quiniones became CEO of the New York Power Authority in late 2011, he brought big dreams for transforming the organization. He looked at trends in computing power, the rising sophistication and plummeting price of sensors, and advances in data analytics and cloud computing software and made a plan for NYPA to become the first end-to-end digital utility.
NYPA’s Vision 2020 plan includes digital asset management in its Integrated Smart Operations Center (iSOC) at NYPA’s headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., the Advanced Grid Innovation Lab for Energy (AGILe) hubs that bring a fully digitized version of New York state’s grid, digital-enabled plant and field workers, and cybersecurity advancements.
It’s an enormous undertaking and requires big changes. According to Quiniones, change is the biggest challenge.
“How do you inspire a shared vision amongst all of our employees, to really get them engaged, and that we all sing from the same song sheet?” said Quiniones. “It’s about execution. In the end, that’s going to be the key for us.”
To empower employees to embrace the changes, Quiniones draws inspiration from the playbooks of smaller, agile tech startups. The utility is starting to restructure its offices to physically embody the change, with more open space, fewer closed offices and cubicles, and facilities that are wired for the future.
“We need to act more and more like a Silicon Valley technology company than a traditional facility,” said Quiniones.
One of the principles NYPA is embracing is fostering collaboration. Quiniones is hoping to work with trusted third-party technology companies, utilities, grid operators, students, and more as time goes on.
“I can see us opening our platform and having those trusted third parties use our data and develop new apps and new products and services for their customers — or for all kinds of customers — and really make New York a hub for innovation in terms of energy,” said Quiniones.
One such application monitors the health of transformers in an effort to catch any anomalies before they fail, a useful feature for a piece of equipment that tends to catch fire when it fails and can take up to two years to replace.
In terms of future partnerships, NYPA is thinking global. NYPA has partnered with Israeli electric power research institute mPrest for its transformer asset monitoring application. The engine NYPA will use in the asset monitoring system is the same type as the one mPrest developed for Israel’s Iron Dome, an air defense system used to block missiles and short-range rockets.
At an industry conference in June 2018, Quiniones said that NYPA is able to assess the health of its generation fleet on a real-time basis from 26,000 points from sensors and meters. By the end of 2019, Quiniones said that NYPA plans to increase the number of sensors to about 90,000.
Having a “constant MRI” on the authority’s power plants and substations “is extremely, extremely important,” Quiniones said. “We’re cataloguing all the savings — we’re over $5 million in savings just from analyzing trends.
NYPA also developed an app that warns ships in the Long Island Sound not to drop anchor when they’re above a NYPA transmission line. Because it co-developed both the ship app and the transformer app, anytime there’s a sale, NYPA gets a royalty cut.
Beyond working with its 47 member public power utilities in New York, NYPA expects that the applications it is building will be useful for other public power utilities.
There’s still work on the horizon. NYPA is still working to connect equipment and systems to the network and adding new sensors, but Quiniones is already looking even further into the future.
“We’re really just starting in our journey,” he said. “I can see us doing much more sophisticated data analytics using artificial intelligence and machine learning.”