Innovating and staying up to date with cutting-edge technology is no longer an option but essential, experts say. Large public power utilities are investing in research and development, shaping a path to the future for all community-owned utilities.
Public power utilities are finding that R&D pays off by making their operations safer, more efficient, and more reliable, while keeping them relevant.
Innovating for efficiency
On a hot summer day along rugged terrain in northern Alabama, it’s hard to inspect equipment or repair power lines. And then there are the rattlesnakes.
Snakes are not the primary reason Wayne Jordan, manager of electric operations at Huntsville Utilities, and his team have begun using drones, but they’re on their minds. About two years ago, Jordan and his team began using the technology with cameras and infrared sensors aboard to check and record data about equipment, spot dead trees, and expedite storm recovery. As a result, a long, challenging trek through rocky terrain and thick forest by two people can be replaced by a 20-minute drone flight.
“This technology makes some routine jobs easier, but it also allows us to get ahead of problems,” Jordan said. “That makes it worth the investment.”
Huntsville has partnered with a local drone company, Avion Unmanned, to obtain drones with specific capabilities and train the staff. Jordan said such collaboration is very important in a new project.
Home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville’s identity is rooted in exploring innovative technology.
That’s why Huntsville decided to construct its own network for Google Fiber after an unsuccessful bid to be one of the cities in the Tennessee Valley to build a high-tech fiber network in partnership with Google. The project is more than halfway complete and will bring gigabit internet service and Voice over Internet Protocol telephone service to the area.
When completed, the network will consist of a fiber ring around Huntsville so that service can branch off into neighborhoods. Huntsville Utilities manages and maintains the core ring, and Google Fiber owns and manages the network from the point of access at the street to the customer.
In an article in Huntsville Business Journal, Joe Gehrdes, community relations manager for the utility, described how the investment benefits both the community and the utility. “This undertaking has been great for Huntsville, but it has also been great for telecom and cable providers, too, because it has significantly improved the infrastructure under which all of these providers offer services,” he said. “They, too, can now offer a better, more affordable service to their customers.”
Gehrdes noted that utilities across the country are watching to see how successful the initiative is to learn from what Huntsville has done and determine what they can replicate in their own cities.
Innovating out of necessity
“The electric utility industry is undergoing an accelerated transformation as a result of increased regulations, climate change, legislation, local policies, and new and emerging technologies,” said Reiko A. Kerr, senior assistant general manager, power system engineering, planning and technical services for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “Advanced technologies in other industries also are increasing customer expectations and driving industry changes through grassroots advocacy. Although R&D has not been a big focus for LADWP in the recent past, we and other utilities need to move more quickly to adapt.”
She said utilities “need to reinvent their ways of doing business, conform to new business models, and modernize electric infrastructure while maintaining a high level of system reliability.”
LADWP is involved with a flurry of R&D projects as it races to meet state and local mandates for reducing the use of fossil fuels.
“Research and development and developing new ways of thinking — it’s all critical,” said Dale Thompson, manager of emerging technology. “The technology we have now isn’t going to work, so we have to explore options. Everything will be different. We haven’t seen anything like this since Edison.”
Thompson says that along with a host of projects to explore new clean ways of generating power (a decision was made earlier this year to not repower ocean-cooled generating units at three gas-fired generating stations -- the units have to be converted to dry cooling or retired in the next 10 years), the utility is focusing on storage, working on 10 such projects, including a unique one starting soon that is being funded in part by a $125,000 grant from the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) R&D program.
The project, undertaken in collaboration with the University of California, Riverside, will be a “game changer,” according to the grant application. It will combine solar power with battery storage and explore upgrades to prototypes of a photo-rechargeable lithium-ion battery, with a photo-anode and lithium cathode.
The results are expected to scale solar energy systems from the single-module level to the residential, commercial, industrial, and utility-scale applications. It will help deploy solar energy with the capability for energy storage, controlled power output, and dispatchability.
“This is a very new approach and so important for the use of renewables,” Thompson said.
LADWP also has developed the La Kretz Innovation Campus, which houses its Sustainable Living and Customer Engagement Labs and the LA Cleantech Incubator, a center in a formerly neglected industrial zone where, according to its website, “entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, and policymakers can collaborate, promote, and support the development of clean technologies and L.A.’s green economy.” It is the first such utility lab connected directly with an R&D facility.
Innovating to meet expectations
Fort Collins Utilities, which serves about 70,500 customers, is known for its cutting-edge work in new approaches to distributed generation and energy services programs. In fact, John Phelan, energy services senior manager, shelved a detailed report on innovation and R&D at the utility that is just five years old because things have changed so quickly.
“That seems ancient,” he said as he checked off a list of projects the utility is undertaking, many in collaboration with Colorado State University. Phelan meets monthly with a senior researcher to exchange updates, and teams from both organizations gather a few times a year to discuss potential joint projects.
Several new research efforts have resulted from the utility’s ability to leverage existing data. Tools now break down traditional silos between data from power and water services, property records, demographics, and businesses and put it in a flexible, functional database, which Phelan said should be the norm in communities but typically isn’t. The utility hopes its model can be widely used by public power.
The system can provide a range of linked information to researchers and the public, whose work will also benefit the utility. It might, for instance, merge data from the county assessor, utilities, and the building permitting and sales tax offices to increase participation in energy efficiency programs through targeted outreach. It could provide information to analyze solar rooftop performance and improve utility programs while offering academic research experience.
The utility is working with a variety of partners, led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, on a funded research project that could connect a development of 500 homes to optimize their energy generation, storage and management for localized and distribution feeder performance. The project, starting with a field demonstration of 20 homes, will significantly increase efficiency and reliability.
Other projects include a sophisticated set of demand response initiatives with varying levels of customer control that respond to variability in renewable generation; a battery demonstration project at its home office; and research on the wellness benefits of home energy efficiency, including healthier air and reduced stress.
“You have to carve out some time and network — but then also have to advocate for this type of work. And that’s just not always possible. I’d love R&D to be a bigger part of my job description,” said Phelan.
Huntsville, LADWP, and Fort Collins all have worked with others — including colleges and universities, state and federal government, business and regional development groups, corporations, and other utilities — to bring R&D projects to life. This is the idea behind the DEED program, which encourages collaboration up front and shares project results widely.
“Collaboration is important because we can achieve so much more when we work together on issues of mutual importance,” said Michele Suddleson, DEED program director. “We can leverage our resources to create even better research projects for large and small utilities.”
Suddleson sees five areas of increasing importance for R&D: artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics (including drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles), cyber and physical security, sustainability, and storm readiness and coastal hardening.
Experts say R&D efforts should start small and be scaled, with a strong design, clear goals, and a plan to collect good data about their performance.
“It’s definitely going to have to be a group effort,” Thompson said. “We need to find partners for these projects and then share results to maximize their value.”
Proceed with caution
Phelan and other experts said R&D is good for utilities of any size, even though it is an additional expense and can be riskier than the status quo. Entities that don’t innovate, as one researcher put it, “are likely to become irrelevant in the marketplace.”
R&D might solve a problem or make a task simpler, like the drones in Huntsville; keep a utility on pace with big changes that are rocking the energy industry, like the multiple projects in Los Angeles; or just let others know the utility is striving to serve them better.
“As a municipal utility, however, we must proceed somewhat cautiously when investing in new technology,” said Kerr from LADWP. “Committing to R&D in general requires substantial capital and effort and a reasonable estimation of risk and potential return on that investment.”
“Public power utilities are proactive some of the time and reactive some of the time — it’s just the way things are,” said Huntsville’s Jordan.
Phelan said that city leadership expects innovation, and customers now increasingly don’t want the utility just doing “the same old thing.”
“That said, it is sometimes hard to get funding and support for research and development. Budgets are tight, there are concerns about rates, and there are a lot of other things power companies have to do,” Phelan said. “There can be an inherent tension between innovation and operations, and we’re excited to challenge ourselves to pursue both at a high level.”