Customer Service, Executive Insight, Smart Grid

How phase detection can help utilities enhance service and improve asset management

Utilities often think they have a good handle on their grid phase strategy. But while they may have plenty of documentation developed to show which meters map to which phase, sometimes the real world intervenes. Seasons change, storms roll through and teams do what needs to be done to keep things running efficiently.

While meters are swapped for good reason, sometimes the work order trail is missing. How can you verify the current phase of your installation when things change on the fly? In this article, we’ll explore new phase detection capabilities for electrical meters and how utilities can use them as part of an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system to gain better control over their infrastructure.

Phase detection: an overview

Phase detection helps utilities determine the distribution phase of each meter on their grid in a process that combines metrology, communications and analytics. For example, the Sensus phase detection solution works as an integrated component within the point-to-multipoint AMI network architecture. The application sends a broadcast signal to a group of meters that upon receipt begin measuring time until the next voltage crossing. These times are collected and compared to a known reference meter. The data is then mapped to the distribution system.

Phase detection allows utilities to eliminate guesswork and keep documentation updated to accurately reflect their installations. With these capabilities, utilities can:

·         Balance grid load using the method that works best for the utility  

·         Proactively manage assets including grid mapping and transformer management

·         Verify meter restoration to the correct phases after network damage

·         Eliminate extra cost of dispatching crews to verify phase

·         Reinforce connectivity model for outage management systems so power restoration efforts are directed to the outage location.

Phase detection can be beneficial for utilities seeking to maximize the capabilities associated with their AMI systems and streamline efficiencies across operations. Next, we’ll look at one electric utility looking to use phase detection to address its customer’s needs for more efficient service, particularly with regard to seasonal residents.

Electrical District Number 2: using AMI to deliver phase detection

For Electrical District Number Two (ED2), the step up to an AMI system felt more like a giant leap in terms of capabilities to serve customers in its rural coverage area between Phoenix and Tucson. Gone were the long, exhaustive days spent trudging across 220 square miles of desert terrain to take manual meter reads. By automating this process with remote meter monitoring and real-time data collection, the utility fundamentally changed the way it did business.  

“It used to take us the whole month to complete meter reads,” said Casey Saxton, Customer Service Manager at ED2. “By streamlining this process with our AMI system, we dramatically improved efficiency for our staff and used the system to explore new opportunities to better serve customers.”    

Since deploying its AMI solution in 2016, ED2 has continued to build on its system with new capabilities like outage management and remote disconnect of meters, an especially helpful capability considering that seasonal residents make up one-third of the utility’s population. Now, ED2 is looking at phase detection as an analytics resource to help further advance operational efficiency.

Striking a balance

As snowbirds flock to Arizona’s Greater Casa Grande Valley region each winter to enjoy the mild weather, ED2 prepares itself for a big fluctuation to hit its grid. There is typically a three-fold increase in its electrical load as the utility transitions from winter to summer.

“We turn our electricity on and off for residents twice a year, so our system experiences a large, sudden swing in the winter,” said Saxton. “Sometimes we have to rebalance the load with this shift, which can be complex and eats up a lot of our staff resources.”  

To help streamline the process for load balancing, ED2 decided to pilot a phase detection application. With the functionality already integrated in its AMI system, the utility worked to deploy phase detection on select meters and began receiving reports at the end of 2018.

Promising results lead to system-wide roll-out

Upon launching the pilot, Saxton and his team were pleasantly surprised with the quick results of phase detection data.

“We received results on the first pass,” said Saxton. “As a phasing tool, it was clear that the application could help us improve efficiency and would be a valuable asset.”

Based on the success of its testing, ED2 sees significant potential in deploying phase detection as a system-wide solution.

“Any time you can take boots off the ground, there are huge savings in terms of time and costs,” said Saxton. “The extra breathing room also gives our staff the chance to troubleshoot and make necessary adjustments to our load during the seasonal transition.”  

A strategic advantage

While efficiency and cost savings are major priorities, Saxton and his team see phase detection as a useful tool for planning and asset management.  

“We can track voltage history and get insights on how our transformers are performing,” said Saxton. “This type of data will be useful in helping optimize our grid strategy and getting the most out of our equipment.”

At the end of the day, Saxton believes the ability to capture meaningful data only becomes more important for his utility and other public service providers as they move into the next phase of their evolution.

“Some utilities might think of data as just a set of numbers, but there’s a lot more depth to it,” said Saxton. “As technology continues to advance, these insights become differentiators for utilities, particularly around operations and customer service.”  

Conclusion

Utilities come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s up to each one individually to decide when and how they might utilize phase detection. When utilities deploy phase detection, reports and analysis are typically available as a professional service offering through their AMI provider. Other utilities may decide to build out the functionality internally, so they can use it as a standalone application.

The deployment decision for phase detection may come down to how often a utility wants to run reports and receive data. If a utility needs to receive insights on a seasonal basis, they might look to their service provider to manage the tools and processes needed to transmit the information. As a utility begins to use the data more frequently to assist in planning and asset management, it could make sense to bring more of those functions in-house.

No matter what stage utilities are in with their AMI investment, phase detection is an important consideration. Like the capabilities of outage management and remote disconnects, the solution offers a way to extend the benefits associated with AMI. And, as data becomes more intertwined in operational strategy and asset management, phase detection gives utilities one more tool in their toolkit to enhance operations and protect expensive assets.

About the author: Kenny O’Dell is the marketing director of North America electric metering for Sensus, a Xylem brand.  O’Dell offers more than 20 years of experience in electronic design. He holds a computer science degree from the University of South Carolina.