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October 3rd, 2011
Autovation Successfully Bridges Sensors and Systems

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Autovation, the smart utility conference run by Utilimetrics, took on new content this year with a track organized by the Geospatial Information Technology Association. The event took place from Sept. 25-28 at the Gaylort National Resort in Washington, D.C., drawing a strong crowd of electric and water utilities that are committed to the promise of intelligent infrastructure.

Updating Infrastructure

The opening plenary session featured a keynote by Bill Gausman, senior vice president at Pepco Holdings, who discussed his utilities move to intelligent grid sensors and automated meters to improve control, quality, reliability and security of their transmission lines. Gausman stressed the operational efficiencies of smart grid technologies with their delivery of up-to-date and fact-based data.

Gausman stressed a phased and measured approach to the roll-out of improvements, saying that it has taken 100 years to build the current infrastructure, and that it will take time to update it. The phased approach of Pepco has been carefully planned to maximize customer benefits and minimize confusion, because negative response to deployment can adversely impact the ability to recover costs. Customer control is the greenest and cheapest method to add capacity as opposed to adding more generation and transmission capacity.

Among the customer benefits that were outlined were the improved interaction between the customer and the utility, without the need for customers to call for outages, to access information on usage, or to understand cost associated with use. Among the indirect benefits are improved reliability, more strategic mobilization for outage events, reduced truck calls (which amounted to 600 fewer truck routings for Hurricane Irene alone), and more usable and understandable energy data. Pepco is taking several next-steps with their customer interface, including expanding access to energy information to smartphones and ipads as well as the ability to remotely control themostats, which will be a big benefit for their East Coast customer base with many that have summer homes.

Visualizing Evolving Demand

Paul Feldman, past chair of MISO, gave a detailed map-based overview of the day in the life of the electric grid in the midwest. The talk described the impact of real-time wholesale pricing where congestion on the grid caused higher prices, and projected a future that does away with the artificial prices that we all pay now, instead having us all pay the actual price for electricity, and allowing companies to bid and sell their energy into a wholesale system.

In the early morning hours the grid is largely quiet, but prices rise quickly as people wake up. As winds pick up due to an incoming weather front, power generation increases from various wind farms, driving the prices down. Wind variability can have a dramatic impact on energy cost across regions.

Prices increase dramatically over the course of a day, with real costs of electricity far exceeding the artificial pricing. Supply and demand curves vary east to west and north to south, dependent on weather and constraints on the distribution system. Feldman discussed a future scenario where a chain of retail stores might monitor the actual costs of energy and quickly respond by changing their demads, such as dimming their lights across all stores and reducing their heating and cooling demands. The real-time response to pricing would have a bottom-line impact on their energy costs, while also reducing their emissions.

Utilities as Civilization’s Backbone

George Hawkins, general manager of DC Water, gave a rousing keynote this morning at the Autovation event taking place in the DC area this week. Hawkins asserts that utilities are at the forefront of saving human civilization. He said that we’re called utilities, which in sports implies that you’re able to play a number of different positions, but that we’re really a “fundamental ‘ility’.”  His reasoning for this belief is that because water and electricity are essential to life. Without utilities there really are no jobs, because all employers and all homes need connectivity in order to be occupied.

Five points that are critical to a water utility (and translate to other utilities):

  1. we are fundamental because water is life
  2. we’re in terrible shape (with a rating of D- from the American Society of Civil Engineers, a F rating is only because we don’t want to do the paperwork associated with a failing grade)
  3. customers don’t know the complexity that we deal with on a daily basis
  4. we don’t have a financial model that works, without revenues that support upgrades to the system
  5. utilities with a monopoly means that we haven’t been as innovative as we need to be

When you put all these things together, Hawkins says that these five items are forming a fist that is coming at us, that absolutely needs to change. What has changed to help us with all of these challenges is the way that technology has changed the way that we communicate. Embracing the use of sensors and systems to increase efficiency, and to communicate transparency to customers, respond more quickly to outages.

After installing the Automated Meter Reading system, the utility has far fewer calls coming into their customer call center. Intercepting problems more quickly means that the whole system operates much more efficiently, and drives down the five problems that each utility faces.

GIS for Smart Grids

Aaron Patterson from Enspiria Solutions addressed some of the critical roles that GIS play in supporting smart grid deployments. Patterson suggests that the ultimate goal of a centralized room with a full view of the energy grid is at least 30 years away, but utilities are working now on biting off smaller parts of the vision to make a smarter grid, and GIS is critical in planning, building, operating and maintaining these systems.

GIS is an important element in deployment planning. At the planning stage, knowing a good deal about the customers and where they live is an important area. GIS allows you to explore and delineate areas of high turnover, such as a college town, where meters will eliminate truck visits to houses when it becomes automated, and providing a great cost savings. Similar savings can be realized in areas where there is a good deal of electricity theft, where meters provide a tamper-resistance means to recoup deployment costs.

After the planning, GIS provides a visual means to communicate the deployment, with a regular visual update about the areas that have been complete. The view provides a means to deploy the workforce to areas where the work is needed, and provides a channel for customer communication.

After the meters are deployed, it then comes down to metrics about the network performance. GIS is an important tool to measure the reads from the meters, and to understand if there are failing meters. When customers become accustomed to the data and feedback from the meter, they come to rely on it, and GIS helps not only determine problems before they notice, but also provision workers to fix it.

The spatial view of wireless network connectivity provides an important input to distribution management systems (DMS), which is one of the first objectives of a smart grid deployment. The GIS started as a means to make maps, and contain all assets and land base. The next phase was on integrated GIS, where it tied together outage management (OMS) and distributed power (DPS) systems. The integration of GIS with other enterprise systems is the norm now within a utility, and there are benefits from this integration across all phases of smart grid deployment.

The Sensors and Systems Future

Erik Shepard of Waterbridge Consulting addressed the synergies between sensor-based technologies and systems. The Smart Grid vision requires a lot of information to make decisions and also generates a lot of information. GIS is a core foundational technology that organizes data and turn it into actionable information, facilitating decisions with real-time information.

The community at this event all shared the belief that 3D and 3D modeling have a promising future to solve many real-world problems. The group is at the forefront of wrestling with data and workflow issues to speed the adoption, and the meeting proved an important venue for the open discussion of where are we now, where to we need to go, and what are some of the challenges that need to be overcome.

Among the emerging areas for greater GIS utility in Smart Grid applications are:

  • Volt-var optimization (VVO) – ensuring consistent power quality
  • Fault detection, isolation and restoration (FDIR)
  • Fault localization, isolation and service restoration (FLISR)
  • Intelligent alarming – detecting faults and where connectivity has failed
  • Distributed Generation / Renewables / Microgrids
  • Flexible rates and filings
  • Smart Meter Deployment – smart meter site location
  • land usage and three-dimensional profiles of transmission

GIS is a key technology that integrates economics, engineering and the environment. With GITA’s alliance with Utilimetrics, we can expect a future event that more closely marries the worlds of sensors and systems for more efficient electrical grids.

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