Alaskan Villages get Smart Grid With Smart Grid as a Service

by David Smith, SAIC, and Dennis Meiners, Intelligent Energy Systems

The Alaska wind howls like wolves, and temperatures tumble to minus 40. Here, where power equals survival, nearly 200 far-flung villages have zero backup generation.

Communities speckled across the state depend on localized diesel power plants and small microgrids for electricity. Fuel supply, however, is a constant worry; fuel barges navigate the melted summer sea only four months before chilly waters revert to impassable miles of ice. Mid-winter outages mean villagers cannot heat their homes, schools cannot operate and planes cannot land.

To fight such barriers, four tribal villages committed to cut their energy costs and diesel dependence. They got a smarter grid.

Wind turbines dance in Kongiganak, Alaska, population 439.

In 2005, leaders from the southwestern Alaska villages Kipnuk (population 639), Kongiganak (population 439), Kwigillingok (population 321) and Tuntutuliak (population 408) formed Chaninik Wind Group with local utility managers and energy consultants.

The group formed to combine their collective resources to obtain funding and build community-scale wind projects. Its goals were to use wind power to reduce fossil fuel consumption by 40 percent by 2015. The concept was to use wind not only to displace fuel used for power generation, but also to develop a method using wind to heat homes.

With state and federal assistance and support from Intelligent Energy Systems (IES), an Anchorage wind diesel technology firm, three of the four villages each installed 450 kW of wind capacity (five Windmatic S-17 wind turbines each) and 20-30 electric thermal storage devices in homes. The ETS devices allow excess wind energy to be stored to heat homes. Even with the wind turbines, the villages needed a simple, affordable way to monitor energy generation, consumption trends and overall data.

Smart Grid as a Service

While IES and the Chaninik Wind Group worked to bring wind power to the region, SAIC developed Smart Grid as a Service (SGS) to provide a one-stop, low-risk solution for utilities, especially municipalities and co-ops that wanted to move to the smarter grid but had limited staff and money.

The SAIC team built SGS from the ground up as a multitenant, private cloud solution. The company provides everything from initial planning and education, design and build of the program and finally operation. It also procures and installs the meters, hosts the key applications and integrates to the utility billing system. The utility pays for the service through a payment plan, usually within five or seven years. To offset the initial capital costs, SAIC uses a per meter/per month pricing structure, which makes SGS economically feasible for utilities with fewer than 100,000 meters. (Figure 1 outlines SGS components.)

The four villages were committed to decreasing costs and moving away from diesel. SGS seemed like a good fit to move the wind energy program toward the smarter grid. The first smart meters were installed in November 2011, and the program was online and operational by Dec. 12. The villages installed a communications system that integrated the legacy distribution system with the wind turbine system. The integrated hardware and software solution provides advanced metering infrastructure, outage alerts, remote connection capabilities and the foundation to integrate fuel, water, temperature and alternative energy metering.

Immediate Results

Temperatures hit minus 30 and winds raced at 30 mph by the end of the first billing cycle after the smart meters were installed. To a manual meter reader, the conditions would have felt more like minus 67 with the wind chill. The Chaninik Wind Group saw benefits almost immediately. The SGS system allowed for automatic collection of the data for the end-of-month billing report.

The villages also used meter data to support critical energy-management decisions.

Kipnuk, for example, had been having problems with its aging generator, but it didn’t have the statistics and background information to properly size and plan for upgrades. Now, the village gets daily reports of outages and voltage issues and can use concrete data to justify application to the state for modern wind and diesel generation equipment.

In Tuntutuliak, voltage monitoring identified two aging transformers that will be replaced this summer.

And in Kwigillingok, utility management can monitor accounts more closely and help customers manage their usage to reduce service disruptions.

Gold buttons represent the remote connect and disconnect functions in the Smart Grid as a Service utility portal.

Gold buttons represent the functions in the SGS utility portal. Kwig Power Co. Manager William Igurak and utility clerk Inez John were excited to use remote connect and disconnect as quickly as possible.

“Thank you for the gold buttons,” Igurak said.

Next

The villages realized several benefits during the initial months of the program, but several improvements remain to reduce energy costs and diesel reliance further.

IES has been focusing on optimizing the 15 wind turbines, which will be in full production this summer. Right now residents pay 60 cents per kilowatt-hour for diesel-generated power.

David Smith inspects a meter at the U.S. Post Office in Tuntutuliak, Alaska, population 408.

In the future, cheap wind power and electric thermal stoves will offset the $7-per-gallon heating fuel in the villages. Windy days are often frigid days, so the forces of nature will be harnessed to heat homes. Residents no longer will spend half their family income on energy because SGS enables the utilities to meter wind and diesel power and charge for each appropriately.

The village utilities also will receive SAIC’s new Outage Analysis Module (OAM), which runs on Esri, a geographic information system (GIS) company. The two are working together to provide greater capabilities to utilities of every size. The OAM is now a standard SGS feature. It provides a map view of every smart meter a utility has deployed, alerts the utility of the location and size of outages and measures the duration to eliminate guesswork and reliance on consumers for outage notifications. Outage analysis and a GIS have been beyond the reach of many small utilities, but cloud-based technologies such as SGS leverage the costs of these applications across multiple utilities, making the applications affordable for utilities of all sizes.

Next year SAIC will integrate prepay functionality into the SGS suite. Prepay will provide customers with another method to manage their electricity expenses, and the utilities can improve cash flow.

Kwig Power Co. utility clerk Inez John and Manager William Igurak are excited to use the remote connect and disconnect function.

The smart grid infrastructure in these four Alaska villages will provide a complete community energy-management infrastructure to reduce energy costs and dependence on expensive diesel fuel that devastates local village economies. Improving reliability, however, is the most important outcome. Winters turn harsh and deadly in Alaska. A more reliable infrastructure can save lives.

David Smith is SAIC’s smart grid business process champion. Smith, a certified public accountant, has spent 25 years improving processes in the energy industry.

Dennis Meiners is president of IES, which provides community wind systems. Meiners has been involved in improving the efficiency and reliability of rural power systems for 19 years.

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