Designing the Utility of the Future: Duke Energy Takes a Holistic View of Distribution

By Steven M. Brown, editor in chief

A number of utilities are beginning to take what might best be termed a “holistic” approach to distribution system improvement. Rather than piecemeal, siloed projects focusing on one specific area–like advanced metering, distribution automation or substation automation–these utilities are undertaking broader visions. They’re looking at how technology implementations in one part of the distribution system can interact with and work toward the betterment of enhancements in other parts of the distribution system and the power system as a whole.

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Kansas City Power & Light is a prime example of this philosophy of holistic system enhancement with its “Comprehensive Energy Plan” (reported on in the September 2007 issue of this magazine; see “Issue Archives” at KCP&L’s Comprehensive Energy Plan was designed to meet the growing need for energy in the KCP&L service area. The plan includes proposals for new coal-fired and wind-fueled generation, investment in demand response programs, and six projects related to distribution automation. Also following this “holistic” approach to system improvement, two major Texas utilities, CenterPoint Energy Houston Electric and Oncor (formerly TXU Electric Delivery), are putting in broadband over powerline networks that promise to power a host of intelligent distribution system applications, including advanced metering, distribution automation and outage restoration.

Add to the list of utilities taking broad approaches to distribution system improvement Duke Energy with its “Utility of the Future” project.

Duke’s Utility of the Future initiative spans the entire distribution system and encompasses advanced metering, distribution automation, substation automation and even the integration of small-scale distributed generation. Duke is in the early stages of this initiative, which will culminate in a five- to seven-year build-out across the company’s service territory at a cost of just under a billion dollars.

Duke Energy has a service territory of approximately 47,000 square miles and delivers electric power to nearly 4 million customers in the Carolinas, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. The company delivers power to those customers over a network that consists of 20,000 miles of transmission lines and 106,000 miles of distribution lines. The primary focus of Duke’s Utility of the Future initiative is to build a networked infrastructure of intelligent devices on those 106,000 miles of distribution lines.

“What we envision is combining our new and existing power delivery assets–meters, capacitors, line sensors, substations, everything that’s on our distribution grid–and connecting those with sensing, monitoring and communication devices, creating a network to retrieve information from and deliver information to those assets,” said Matt Smith, Duke’s director of technology development. Smith also serves as director of the Utility of the Future initiative.

“For our end state, we envision a network of devices interacting to increase system efficiency, both for us and for our customers,” he said.

Unlike much of the current wave of “smart grid” programs, Duke’s Utility of the Future plan doesn’t necessarily have the customer meter as its focal point. While advanced metering is an integral part of the Utility of the Future plan and several of the pilot programs associated with it, Smith said Duke is looking at the meter as one of many endpoints that can serve as a source of distribution system information.

“It’s just like we look at our own company’s internal computer network,” Smith said. “Every computer or printer on the network is an endpoint. They all serve different purposes, but one doesn’t necessarily provide information that’s more important than another.”

Smith does acknowledge that smart meters will provide Duke Energy with important information about how the utility’s customers use energy. Pushing energy efficiency initiatives out to customers–something Smith refers to as “universal access to energy efficiency”–is one of the main goals of the Utility of the Future effort. Smith said that, currently, the meter provides the best interface between Duke Energy and its customers, but, in the future, this interface could move either closer to the utility or closer to the customer. “It may be devices in the home that we interact with,” he said. “Or it may move further into our system. A wireless communication device may sit at the transformer and communicate inside the home without going through the meter.

“We’re pursuing a concept that would be a sort of dashboard in the home where the customer would have direct access to information about their usage and what’s happening on their side of the meter,” Smith said.

He noted that the information Duke currently provides its electric customers is identical to the type of information most electric utilities provide: a rearward view of how much energy a customer has used on a monthly basis for the past year. But, taking a retrospective look at energy usage does little to empower consumers to manage their usage in the here and now.

“What we want to do is increase the amount of information, give them more granular insight, whether it’s on an hourly basis or every 15 minutes, some increment where they can see with more clarity what’s happening (with their energy usage),” Smith said. He added that he would like to see this energy usage data driven down to the device level so customers can see, for instance, what their top five energy consuming devices are. He also wants to be able to deliver this information in near-real-time, as opposed to the current method of providing historical information.

“Our focus is not just the “Ëœsmart grid’ but how we enable our customers to participate in energy efficiency.”

Besides promoting energy efficiency, Smith said Duke may also be able to offer such metering-related programs as prepaid metering and remote connect/disconnect to customers in the future. (See pages 40-44 of this issue for more information on remote connect/disconnect programs.) He also noted that power reliability, power quality and outage restoration are other areas that will benefit from the Utility of the Future projects related to metering.

Moving back onto the Duke system from the customer meter, the Utility of the Future program will also include such distribution automation functionality as line sectionalizing so Duke is better able to isolate faults on its system and improve power reliability. Substation automation and communication with intelligent devices inside the substation also fall under the Utility of the Future umbrella.

“As we add new substations or upgrade existing substations, we’re making sure we put in devices that are capable of connecting to a network, that they have standard interfaces, like an Ethernet-type connection. And we’re focusing on interfacing with the right communication systems.”

Therein lies one of the main challenges Smith believes Duke will encounter as they move forward with the Utility of the Future initiative: technology selection.

“We’re looking for the best combination of technologies,” Smith said. “We don’t think one technology will work across all our territories. We believe we’ll need a combination of both communications and endpoint technologies. We’re not seeing one vendor who can come in and meet all our needs from the substation to the customer home in every service territory. Our challenge isn’t so much finding technology that works as it is finding the right combination of technologies that will work.”

Smith noted that the proprietary nature of many vendor offerings also pose a problem. Open standards, Smith says, are crucial to Duke’s vision.

“Our number one obstacle is interoperability of devices, without a doubt. What we see in the vendor community are isolated products. They generally offer a product that will work across our system but not across other vendors.”

Currently, Smith said Duke is in the process of determining exactly what communication and endpoint technologies they need in place to arrive at the Utility of the Future. He said this technology evaluation will continue through the second quarter of 2008. Starting at the end of 2008, Duke should be ready to make decisions on exactly how they will deploy this new technology. After that, Smith envisions a five- to seven-year build-out across Duke’s service territories, with the bulk of the build-out coming in years one through five.

Smith said Duke’s capital plan over the next five years for the Utility of the Future initiative is estimated at $975 million.

BPL not Dead Yet at Duke Energy

Matt Smith, Duke Energy’s director of technology development and director of the company’s Utility of the Future initiative, says a recent media report that the utility is abandoning efforts in broadband over powerline (BPL) communications technology isn’t entirely accurate. He said BPL as a communications medium, though not without its shortcomings, is still in the mix as the company looks to build a broad network of intelligent devices throughout its distribution system.

Duke energy currently has broadband over powerline technology deployed in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charlotte, N.C.

“We’re finding that the technology (BPL) is efficient in delivering information (in the form of broadband Internet access) to the home. We’ve had positive response from customers,” Smith said. “On the utility side of the meter, we’re finding that the equipment is fairly expensive at this point and that we need more of it than we anticipated.”

Smith said that in the early stages of Duke’s evaluation of BPL, there was an assumption that BPL couplers could be placed at every other transformer or every other customer drop. (A coupler is a device that allows data on power lines to bypasses the transformer to ensure optimal strength of the BPL signal.) “We’re finding we need more BPL equipment than we had anticipated, and so the cost-benefit has been challenging,” he said.

Smith said that rather than abandoning BPL, Duke will look to leverage existing BPL assets to interface with the intelligent devices the company is installing as part of its Utility of the Future effort. While he said Duke is not currently installing new BPL equipment to further the Utility of the Future project, the company is trying to determine whether there is a cost-effective way to use the BPL assets already in place to form at least part of the communications network that will interface with intelligent devices such as meters, transformers, line sensors and equipment within substations.

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