Utility of the Future can be a Trusted Partner by Embracing New Tools

Exciting changes are being visited on the electric power industry and no one is better suited to usher in these changes than the local utility. The construction of isolated direct current electric systems in the late 1800’s started an industry and a relationship between electricity providers and customers for what is now the most critical of delivery services in the world.

Electricity touches every facet of our way of life: it powers our homes and businesses; our hospitals, schools and public safety facilities; and drives the Internet and data analytics that are increasingly transforming the way the country does business. The introduction of distributed energy resources (DER), electricity storage and the automated smart grid present unique challenges to the provision of safe, reliable and affordable power. These are challenges that the local utility is ideally suited to manage and lead to the benefit of all customers.

Kevin Fitzgerald

The benefits are broad: Outage notification and restoration improvements; energy efficiency programs; and conservation projects; operational hardware technology that improves reliability and reduces the duration and frequency of outages; and pricing programs that save customers money. Where we go next is just the beginning of the next chapter on smart grid enhancements and the utility of the future.

The introduction of the Internet, telecommunications and increased connectivity is joining people, information, devices, assets and services. The convergence of OT and IT is enabling a new grid and creating a new set of expectations and possibilities for the relationship between electricity providers and customers. Utilities have been trusted to serve customers and house customer information since the first power generation, transmission and distribution facilities were built.

Today we are enhancing our role as a trusted partner even further to help facilitate the transformation of our electric system and provide benefits to our customers. We also have an opportunity to manage this change and shape the future prosumer and consumer environment as customers begin to not only consume electricity, but also produce and feed electricity back to the grid using distributed generation sources like solar or even electric vehicles utilizing vehicle to grid technology.

The utility of the future begins with customers and customer usage data. Smart meters and the benefits enabled by the vast amounts of data flowing between customers, hardware and utilities provide the core information that helps us improve. Customer data provides us information, which translates into knowledge which provides insight.  

The progression from raw data to insight is what benefits both the industry and customers alike.  Data when used properly can provide more benefits for customers and the system. For example, interval energy usage data provides customers a valuable look at their detailed energy usage and can be managed to save all customers money. Utilities have only scratched the surface of capturing benefits here.

The growth and deployment of new technology is not without some operational challenges. For example, electric vehicles provide enormous benefits, but also present load challenges. Smart meter data is being used in pilot programs to study the effects of electric vehicles on transformers in neighborhoods previously designed to handle specific ranges of stationary load. Analyzing mobile charging data and the proliferation of electric vehicles by analyzing smart meter data can help utilities improve reliability by sizing transformers appropriately and upgrading transformers proactively. Utilities can save money by maximizing asset lifespans and reducing unplanned outages and repairs which indirectly benefits customers. Electric vehicle drivers can save additional money by using smart charging stations that are capable of receiving pricing information from their smart meter.

We have learned in our pilot programs that, with appropriate incentives, 95 percent of customers choose to charge during off peak hours. By charging during off peak hours, we can reduce the impact of mobile load, minimize the construction of additional generation facilities and reduce costs to customers and utilities.

One of the fastest growing areas impacting utilities today is related to the rapid proliferation of DER. These resources are commonly in the form of renewable generation and can be combined with the emergence of energy storage. While some utilities have yet to see a substantial impact, many are currently dealing with the effects of high penetration intermittent generation in the form of roof top solar generation. The most common impact from these resources is related to the power quality impacts of these systems providing intermittent supply into the distribution circuit at any point along its length.

To help address these impacts, utilities will need to further develop sophisticated modeling and analysis tools to better understand and plan for the impacts of interconnecting these resources. Smart meter data is helping in this area by providing a clearer picture of the voltage effects at the customer premise. In addition, Smart Inverter technology will enable utilities to leverage their smart grid investments by communicating directly with commercial and residential inverters. This new capability will not only allow utilities to see a clearer picture of the true output of the renewable generation, but also provide the ability for smart inverters to actively support the grid. These capabilities, combined with smarter voltage regulators, protective relays and improved communications, will provide utilities with better tools to help address the growing needs of their renewable customers.

Conservation voltage reduction (CVR) projects are a method of reducing energy losses, energy usage and peak demand on the utility system by slightly reducing primary distribution voltage. In many cases this voltage reduction leads to reduced energy usage, peak demand and system losses across the utility system. Smart meters are the enabler for successful implementation of CVR.  

On the infrastructure side, demand side management programs that reward customers for using less during peak periods of high electricity usage save customers money, reduce emissions, increase the lifespan of equipment and help utilities manage capital costs. Utilities have the experience and understanding to continue to help customers use this information to their advantage and to create programs that help customers save money and energy by reducing usage. Further, operational technology like distribution automation automatic sectionalizing and restoration schemes can help minimize the impact of outages using automated switch technology to route around damage and directly improve reliability by reducing the duration of outages.

Outage notifications from smart meters process through an outage management system almost instantly, providing valuable data to control centers. Crews can be used more efficiently during outage events with the ability to communicate with meters and verify the status of an outage without sending a vehicle. We’ve seen a 30 percent reduction in the number of outage orders and a 10 percent reduction in the number of outage events dispatched to crews. Reduced truck rolls save money, improve crew utilization and are good for the environment. Real-time outage information can be relayed to customers and allows for transparent communications, changing the customer experience. We have seen a marked improvement in our customer satisfaction scores through the use of a transparent and interactive offering to our customers.

Severe weather is the new normal and utilities must continue to advance to minimize the duration and frequency of outages. OT and IT advances can help minimize the impact to our customers and help us more efficiently manage resources during restoration work.  Nevertheless, traditional construction improvements also play a role. Fiberglass cross-arms which are stronger than traditional wood cross-arms, tree wire that is more resilient to contact from tree limbs, underground lines and non-PCB fluids importantly provide added resiliency and environmental protection for our systems.

In order to shape our future utility, executives should continue to visualize the new products and services of the plug-and-play electricity system. With the IOT, growing usage of storage and DER, new tools will become available to squeeze efficiencies out of our industrial process to the benefit of all customers.

Kevin C. Fitzgerald is Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Pepco Holdings. The Institute for Electric Innovation recently awarded Fitzgerald with its inaugural Technology Leadership Award.

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