Distributed Energy Resources

Partners make possibilities: Expanding public power’s influence in energy innovation

For public power utilities with small staffs, taking on research and development projects may seem impossible.

For the past 40 years, the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments, or DEED, program has allowed public power to pool its resources to support utilities with a great idea to make strides toward testing and deployment. The program is designed to be “right-sized” for public power and can either support smaller projects for incremental improvement or be a jumping off point for ongoing research and development.

For the latter, a wealth of prospective partners are interested in sharing their resources, staff, and capabilities to find the next great revolution in the world of power delivery. These partners, which include private businesses, higher education, and the national laboratories, are often looking not just for ideas from utilities that they can help move forward, but also are often ready with ideas of their own and looking for utilities that can help them test their ideas.

DSTAR: Partnering with private industry

In 1986, General Electric recognized an apparent gap in electric utility R&D. While generation and transmission featured a wealth of projects looking at new and emerging technologies, the distribution side of the house remained largely untouched.

Plus, a cable testing project where Northeast Utilities made use of GE’s labs proved to the company’s power system engineering department that partnerships could be mutually rewarding. Working with six utilities and one utility organization, GE created the Distribution Systems Testing, Application, and Research group, or DSTAR. The consortium is funded and led by utilities looking to make headway on distribution projects that otherwise might not be possible.

Since DSTAR’s creation, 34 utilities have taken part in the 16 completed funding cycles. This has accounted for more than 300 projects, including recent work on transformer repair software, the changing nature of loads, power control devices on distribution feeders, and temporary fault mitigation.

“This is all done in collaboration with the member utilities, with them suggesting the projects based on issues they’re seeing or solutions they are working on,” said Bill Jabour, GE Energy senior product marketing manager, who manages the DSTAR program. “GE is then able to supply the administrative component and some of the technical requirements to get the projects done.”

Importantly, the DEED program has been a DSTAR member since 2010. Since cycle 13, DEED has had a seat at the table, helping to fund and choose projects for DSTAR while also gaining access to all the software solutions and research reports on projects developed through the program for existing DEED members.

Two public power representatives — Paul Jakubczak from Fort Pierce Utilities in Florida and Darryl Strother from Rocky Mount Public Utilities in North Carolina — currently serve as engineering leads, which means they participate in planning meetings and help to ensure that projects yield results that apply to public power utilities.

The DSTAR process starts with an idea generation phase where all members discuss the driving issues and challenges affecting the industry and pitch specific projects that might be beneficial. GE Energy Consulting scopes out what is possible and comes up with a ballpark cost for each idea, then gives members an overview of options for the next phase.

“We take these ideas and develop full proposals that really go into depth of what this would mean and require,” Jabour said. “We evaluate the background for the idea, what has been done before, what is the scope that can be done, what the schedule and budget look like, and who would be needed to work on the project.”

Members then rank each project based on the assumed value of the end product. From that ranking, as many projects as possible are moved forward, using pooled funds collected from the membership. The original member who sponsored the project becomes the technical leader, guiding the progress of the deliverable, becoming a sounding board for those working on the project, and reviewing results to keep it applicable for all DSTAR members.

“One thing that is really important for the member is that once the project is done — whether it’s software or a report — the DSTAR member behind it owns the exclusive right to it outright,” Jabour added.

In the current cycle, 17 projects are under consideration. Jabour estimates that six to eight will move forward, and members can set aside the remaining ideas to be considered in the next funding cycle or seek other R&D resources. One project, which is sponsored by DEED, would explore how 5G systems on distribution poles might create interference for utility devices or limit access for crews to maintain distribution components.

“We’re not really making a lot of money off of DSTAR, but we’re able to get so much out of it,” Jabour said. “By being involved in DSTAR, GE can understand exactly what is driving the utility industry, can recognize what some of the research and equipment needs are out there, and can translate that into business opportunities that will serve the industry as a whole.”

“We want to be an extension of each member utility’s R&D activities,” he added. “We appreciate that they can leverage GE while GE gets to build these relationships and do great work.”

Back to school

For Fort Collins Utilities in Colorado, R&D is a key activity for being able to meet the public power utility’s — and its community’s — ambitious goals.

John Phelan, senior manager of energy services, noted that Fort Collins Utilities has set targets in energy efficiency, local renewables, and demand response in some form since 2004, and that the city council has set goals to use 100% renewable energy by 2030, reduce carbon emissions communitywide by 80% by 2030, and be carbon neutral by 2050.

“Some of those targets are 20 years ahead of what’s generally out there, so that’s caused us to recognize the importance of understanding what’s possible in partnerships for research and development since we need to be on a very accelerated path to reach those goals,” he said.

Phelan said the utility takes a “triple-helix approach” — connecting private sector, public sector, and academia to find ways to work together on projects and solutions.

For the third helix, a great partner is already in its backyard: Fort Collins is home to a premier research institution, Colorado State University, and its Energy Institute.

“We’re extremely fortunate to have access to the amazing researchers there,” Phelan said. “The Energy Institute means there is a foundation of leading researchers and students at all levels, all focused on the same issues we are.”

Phelan noted that a grant from the Department of Energy a few years back to create a zero-energy district — called the FortZED initiative — involved collaborating with CSU, the city, private partners, and the state, and has since led to additional partnerships. “It opened our eyes to what can be done with these partnerships and some of the challenges that can come with different coalitions and their requirements.”

Central to Fort Collins Utilities’ recent work with CSU has been a multi-beneficial data exchange project. In that project, Fort Collins’ advanced metering infrastructure data is fed back to CSU.

“They were able to build a model of our entire distribution system based on the AMI data and system topology, resulting in a model we can  use for scenario planning,” he said.

This has directly helped both partners to understand a wide range of topics, including transformer failures, solar hosting capacity, and electric vehicle adoption.

The data sharing extends beyond CSU and Fort Collins. The two recently expanded their data-sharing agreement to include the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and they anticipate even more high-quality R&D to come out of that relationship.

“Across all this, we’ve consistently found that the data we are generating and possess is of extraordinary value to the research community,” Phelan said. “It’s kind of surprising sometimes how real-world information is typically not available, so we’re glad to build these connections.”

Meanwhile, the city has offered itself as a place for R&D, in what it calls the “City as a Platform Initiative,” where partners can test demonstration projects on city systems, including the electric utility. This has helped elevate the community’s reputation as a place for innovation, Phelan said. In 2015, the city was highlighted in a “Places of Innovation” exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History for its clean energy efforts.

The national labs: Matching with the experts

Perhaps the most recognizable utility R&D partners have been the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories. Many of the labs already conduct federally funded R&D in partnership with public power utilities across the country.

Sometimes utilities develop a project and then find a lab to partner with; other times a project might fall into a utility’s lap.

In Fort Collins, Phelan noted that the utility got involved in one of its current projects — a smart community initiative that uses artificial intelligence controls in buildings — after the project was first planned out by a green builder in partnership with the NREL. “It was a given that we would have to be a partner on a project that involves our distribution system.”

However, a utility with innovative ideas doesn’t need to wait for a lab partner to come forward.

“The [DOE Office of Technology Transitions], from its creation five years ago, has centrally been focused on following what the customer is looking for and meeting those needs,” said Marcos Gonzales Harsha, principal deputy director. “We heard, ‘You’ve got great programs and activities, but I don’t know where to start — how do I navigate this massive enterprise of tens of thousands of researchers and 17 national labs?’”

The office established the Lab Partnering Service in 2016 to match organizations with innovative ideas with the right facilities and experts. Users can search from a constantly updated database of labs, facilities, and experts to move their ideas forward.

“It’s like an online dating site,” said Robert Bectel, senior program analyst for data management and digital communications in the DOE Office of Technology Transitions. “The goal is for us to provide a chaperoned date with a national lab or a researcher to give individuals the ability to quickly connect, ask simple questions, and create amazing solutions.”

Bectel estimates that between 25 and 50 connections are made each month between the labs and private investors, colleges and universities, and utilities. “We’re happy with this rate because all it takes is one to solve a major riddle,” he said.

Currently, the service allows utilities and others to search for the right connection among more than 200 facilities, nearly 1,400 technology summaries, and more than 250 experts. Users can filter results by lab location and specialization, and utilities that attempt to reach out to an expert on the service will immediately be put in contact with that expert’s lab, which will make sure that the expert is the right fit for the project.

The service is updated regularly to include new and emerging topic areas. Each year, Office of Technology Transitions staff review the data on interactions and user feedback to determine improvements. These improvements are also sometimes done on the fly, such as in recent months, when it became clear that there was a need to include COVID-19 technical assistance.

“Any utility that’s looking down the barrel of a very difficult problem should know that there are many experts who are already probably looking at that same issue,” said Bectel, who described the labs as the R&D engine for the country. “Getting ready access to the technologies under development and the people that are creating them … that’s a big win for everyone.”