Grid Modernization

Smart utilities move from defense to offense with digital tools

Ricardo da Silva began his career with the New York Power Authority in the waning days of what could be described as the dark ages of the utility industry.

da Silva started as project manager with NYPA in 2003, when the industry was operating very much as it had for the last 100 years. Remote, baseload power plants generated electricity that was sent hundreds of miles across transmission lines to customers. Engineers watched and waited to react when a power plant tripped offline or a transmission line dropped out of service.

But today, NYPA’s investment in smart grid technology is shining a light into the utility’s generation and transmission assets, revealing an unprecedented amount of information and revolutionizing how the utility manages its network. 

“We are now able to do better planning and spot issues before they become issues,” da Silva said. “We are controlling our own destiny, which translates into better use of resources, human capital as well as financial.”

NYPA has been working toward becoming a “digital utility” since 2014, when it started implementing its Energy Vision 2020 plan. Today, the utility has deployed thousands of sensors at many of its 16 hydroelectric facilities and at key points along its 1,400 miles of transmission lines.

The array of sensors delivers 26,000 data points in near real time to NYPA’s new Integrated Smart Operations Center, or iSOC, at the utility’s headquarters in White Plains, New York. The utility uses GE’s predictive analytics software and other applications to monitor equipment performance and look for anomalies in the system to help predict and avoid problems. NYPA is in the process of deploying an additional 1,000 sensors into the field by the end of 2019 that will provide more than 100,000 data points.

In addition, new sensors and software can alert engineers to negative trends. For example, observations with a transformer at the Niagara power plant recently raised concerns. The gas entrained in the oil tells the history of the transformer, da Silva explained, because the oil absorbs all the stress a transformer goes through.

Historically, technicians checked transformer oil by taking samples that were then sent to a lab for analysis, and the results were sent back to engineers for review. It was a time-consuming process.

But now, a view into oil chemistry is nearly real time, giving them a head start on solving a potential problem before it affects the transformer.

“It forced us to take a long look at the resource, and we concluded there was no immediate risk,” da Silva said. “But because of this information, we were able to do some robust planning for when we take that resource offline for maintenance. We’re able to line up vendors and plan in advance for what needs to happen.”

Smart grid technologies are allowing NYPA to proactively spot potential asset health issues and be much more efficient with its operating and maintenance budgets. So far, the smart grid initiative has helped save the utility $7 million in avoided costs.

In July 2016, NYPA launched the first-of-its-kind monitoring and alert system to protect the Long Island Sound Cable, a 600-megawatt submarine transmission line running from New Rochelle to  Hempstead Harbor under the Long Island Sound. A smart beacon system uses satellite-based marine navigation technology to monitor and communicate with ships that come near the cables and automatically sends alerts if a vessel appears to be preparing to drop anchor.

An anchor strike ruptured the line in 2014, causing 66,000 gallons of nontoxic cable insulating fluid to leak into the sound. Now every ship that maneuvers over the line gets a warning, and NYPA’s engineers can see which ships are anchoring near the cable.

“Smart grid technology is giving us a situational awareness that we’ve never had,” da Silva said. “It’s giving us actionable insights into what’s happening on the system … It’s really transforming the way we operate.”

Playing offense

Twenty-eight hundred miles west of NYPA, in Portland, Oregon, the Bonneville Power Administration has spent $50 million to deploy phaser measurement units at substations and generating facilities that now give the federal power marketing agency a nearly real-time glimpse into the performance of its hydroelectric units and 15,000 miles of high-voltage power lines.

Every second, BPA’s control room receives a PMU signal with 60 data packs — lists of measurements and the time they occurred — that show what’s happening across the agency’s network.

Gordon Matthews, an engineer in the technology innovation group at BPA, says the data the PMUs deliver is “granular imagery.” The old system delivered information every two seconds. “In the electricity world, two seconds can be an eternity,” he said.

Matthews compares the difference in smart grid technology versus the old system to having a photo of a mountain. The old system delivered just a photo of the mountain, but now BPA gets a high-resolution photo of a mountain that shows trees, leaves, trails, rocks, and streams.

The PMUs give system operators the ability to detect “oscillations” in specific generating units in real time and adjust their output, depending on the situation, to lessen the wear on units.

BPA can see if a hydro generator is running in a rough zone and react accordingly, said Jeff Anderson, software developer at BPA. “To avoid wear and tear, or even failure of an asset, we can now see those oscillations as they are happening and immediately take action.”

The data gathered from the PMUs have allowed BPA to go on the offensive to protect its assets, said Tony Ferris, electrical engineer in BPA’s measurement group.

“In the past, we only played defense, but now that we see what’s happening on the grid, we are playing offense by building in automation in response to what’s happening that helps further enhance reliability.”

Anticipating the future

For the Emerald People’s Utility District in Eugene, Oregon, the decision to invest in smart grid technology was about remaining competitive in the 21st century.

The utility is investing $4 million to swap out 21,800 aging automatic meters with advanced metering infrastructure. As of September, the utility had installed new meters for about three-quarters of its 18,000 residential customers, and it hopes to have commercial, industrial and irrigation customers updated in the next two years.

Over the next 10 years, Emerald PUD will invest $11 million into building out its AMI network and add a geographic information system, meter data management system, and an outage management system.

“We’ve tried to anticipate where the industry is going, and in our minds, we see the utility industry as being ripe for potential disruption from more competition and new technologies, and we want to remain viable in that world,” said Kyle Roadman, power resources manager at Emerald PUD.

Roadman said the AMI meters will allow the utility to deliver more services to customers while giving it deeper insight into usage. The utility is already starting to see some benefits from its investment.

Using data from AMI equipment already in the field, Emerald PUD engineers were able to quickly pinpoint the cause of an outage after a section of the distribution system went out in March. The information saved time and manpower by directing crews to the location of the outage.

Engineers have also used data from smart meters to spot three separate incidents of voltage fluctuations that would have otherwise gone undetected.

“Voltage is a tricky thing; customers would never notice unless they have equipment damage, and we wouldn’t notice, either, until a transformer goes out,” Roadman said. Thanks to the new source of data, Emerald PUD tuned in to the troublesome transformers and decided to pre-emptively replace three transformers before they affected service.

“AMI has just been huge for us,” Roadman said. “We get much wider visibility into our system. It’s already changing the way we dispatch crews, and we’ll fine-tune that as more meters come into service.”

The utility used a grant from the American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Developments program — DEED — to contract with The Energy Authority, a public power-owned nonprofit corporation, to manage the mounds of new data generated from its smart grid investment.

“That’s what we are really excited about,” Roadman said. “We’ve gotten a little taste of what the advanced analytics can do, but once we are fully installed, we can start to talk about some really exciting programs.”

Demand at Emerald PUD has increased 10 percent since 2015, and the utility doesn’t see that slowing down. At the same time, the PUD’s contract with BPA expires in 10 years. To stave off having to potentially invest in new generating resources, Emerald has made energy efficiency and conservation its priorities.

The data gathered from the utility’s AMI meters could help design an energy efficiency program that could cut customer usage dramatically.

“That is a big deal for us,” Roadman said. “The energy efficiency analysis is a new space that we are extremely interested in. We have lots of load growth, and energy efficiency is our resource of choice to meet that demand.”

Like most utilities in the Pacific Northwest, Emerald PUD is a winter-peaking utility, and the use of smart grid communications could also form the foundation of a demand side management program that could trim that winter peak.

“It really gives us one more tool in our chest to maybe close those gaps when we see them coming,” Roadman said.

The utility is probably several years away from designing a DSM program, but Emerald has already seen the benefits of DSM in several pilot projects that allowed for central control over water heaters and thermostats. Roadman said that the data gathered from its smart grid investment could also help shape the utility’s rate design — for example, through time of use rates — to help curb demand.

Smart grid technologies are opening a new era for the industry where engineers, asset managers, and planners can be proactive and creative. The industry’s transformation isn’t something da Silva imagined when he started at NYPA in 2003.

“For technology geeks like me, this is truly exciting,” da Silva said. “To see this technology begin to take hold and to see the level of information it provides is just incredible.”