Grid Modernization

Software helps island fully realize the potential of AMI

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When an undersea electric cable connecting Block Island, Rhode Island, to the mainland went live in May 2017, customers of the island’s electric utility, Block Island Power Co., experienced a significant boost in reliability.

Along with a more reliable supply of power, the cable brought changes to how the utility had to account for the power it sold.

While an advanced metering infrastructure system helped manage those changes, it wasn’t until the utility implemented National Information Solutions Cooperative’s accounting, back office, and customer service systems that it was able to fully realize the potential of AMI and open the door to a variety of future innovations.

Block Island, which is 13 miles from the mainland, is isolated, and counted on five diesel engines as its sole source of electric power.

At the start of May 2017, those engines went quiet. A few minutes later, electric power was restored to the island, but without a sound as the undersea electric cable went live.

The cable not only connected Block Island to the mainland, it was part of a larger deal that involved the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. Another cable connects Block Island to the 30-megawatt wind farm three miles off its eastern shore that was developed by Deepwater Wind. The cables allow wind power to move from the offshore turbines to the mainland, where it is fed into ISO New England’s wholesale power market.

The undersea connection was an improvement sought by Block Island and its power provider, Block Island Power, for decades. “The mainland cable is a game changer for us,” Jeffery Wright, president of Block Island Power, says.

Earlier, diesel power imposed a high cost on Block Island as diesel fuel prices can fluctuate widely. When oil prices spiked in 2010, electric prices on Block Island hit $0.70/kWh. Electricity  prices fluctuated by as much as 10 to 25 cents/kWh over a two-three month period, Wright says. Rates were so unpredictable that residents were reluctant to install anything new that was run by electricity..

The diesel engines also made the island more vulnerable to brownouts and extended blackouts. And in the summer of 2016, one of the diesels exploded and burned down half of the island’s generating plant during peak demand season.

Block Island’s demand profile is very different than that of most utilities. In the winter, about 900 people live on the island. In the summer, the population balloons to between 20,000 and 30,000 people. The effect on demand is dramatic. Off-season demand is about 1 MW. By May, demand usually rises to about 2.5 MW, and in July and August it can be as high as 5 MW. It makes the system very tough to maintain, Wright says.

Since the cable has been in service, there have been no brownouts. Outages have gone down and power quality is unmatched, Wright says. Customers are noticing that their appliances last longer and their clocks run on time. Before the cable was in service, electrical frequency on the island “was all over the place,” says Wright, which can wreak havoc on appliances and cause electric clocks to run too fast or too slow.

When the undersea cable went live, it not only changed the flow and quality of power on the island, it also brought changes to how the island’s utility had to account for the power it sold.

Block Island Power’s rates used to comprise a plant and distribution charge and a fuel cost adjustment charge. After the cable entered service, the utility introduced a standard offer energy and transmission charge. It becomes complicated when the utility needs to switch between a standard offer and transmission charge to a fuel cost adjustment charge because the cable goes down and the utility needs to use its diesel engines for power.

Since Block Island Power also started using advanced metering infrastructure in 2015, it now has the ability to collect customer data – and bill customers – in five-minute intervals, something that its previous accounting system could not handle.

The switch to General Electric’s AMI system, which occurred before the undersea cable tied the island to the mainland, was one of the first steps Block Island Power took in its transition into the 21st century.

AMI lays the foundation “for endless possibilities,” says Wright. Among the benefits, he lists outage management, automated meter reading, collection of interval data, power quality monitoring, and tamper alerts. AMI is a “foundation for a smart grid,” says Wright. “I can tell you what the voltage is at every customer’s home any time of the day or night. I know whether the power is on or off, and I can provide that same information to the customer.”

To leverage AMI possibilities, Block Island Power also needed to update how it handles its accounting, back office, and customer service systems. “We wanted a fully integrated solution that could handle billing, distribution analytics, customer facing applications, and outage management,” Wright says.

After reviewing systems from several vendors, Block Island Power chose National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC), which now provides the utility with a suite of products that includes customer care and billing, meter data management, outage management, mapping software, and SmartHub, NISC’s customer interface application.

AMI, and the software solutions that support it, is particularly useful to a utility serving a territory where many residences are empty or consume minimal power for a large part of the year. It also gives the utility the ability to track outages more quickly and precisely, an important consideration on Block Island, which sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and is subject to brutal Nor’easter winter storms.

In 2018, Block Island Power was hit by four winter storms in a row. For the first time, Block Island Power was able to communicate with customers and provide updates and outage maps in a seamless and efficient manner, Wright says.

“Without NISC’s products we simply had a standalone AMI system that was way under-utilized,” Wright says. The combination has not only improved back office functions, it also has improved customer relations. There has been “a 180 degree turnaround” in customer engagement and customers’ estimation of the utility in a very short time, Wright says.

The combination of AMI and NISC software solutions also lays the groundwork for future innovations. For example, the utility might want to use its diesel engines to shave peak load and avoid high capacity charges. That’s possible now because the utility is connected to the mainland, has an AMI system, and the software solutions to support it.

The most recent step in Block Island Power’s transformation came in March 2019 when the newly established Block Island Utility District purchased all the assets of Block Island Power Co., clearing a path for the creation of a non-profit ratepayer-controlled utility on the island.

“We’re just getting started,” Wright says.

For more information about NISC enterprise software solutions, visit NISC’s website.