New book offers fascinating look at the evolving electric grid

Fri, 2014-12-19 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

It’s hard to imagine a time when electric utilities have had to evolve faster. The Edison Foundation Institute for Electric Innovation, a member of the Council's Advisory Board, has gathered insights from utilities across the United States as they embrace change and deliver meaningful improvements to the electric grid. Those insights are captured as case studies, available for free in the new book Innovations Across the Grid: Partnerships Transforming the Power Sector, which is now in its second volume.

First published a year ago, the book has been completely updated. Dozens of case studies are divided into three overall topics: new energy resources, distribution grid optimization, and customer solutions. Some studies cover finished projects. Many more describe pilot projects being deployed now.

Adapting for new energy resources
The book points out that wind power, which was incredibly rare a decade ago, now accounts for 3% of all electricity in the country. Solar has had a tremendous growth trajectory over the past half-decade.

Utilities have responded to the trend in different ways. Many are studying ways to store solar and wind energy for use at night or when winds are calm. Others are looking for more ways to harvest it.

Dominion Virginia Power falls into the latter category. The utility, which has 700 customers with their own solar panels, is leasing rooftops and other spaces on public and commercial properties to install its own solar facilities. It plans to generate as much as 30 MW of power on these leased facilities. But its pilot project goes beyond that. It’s also studying the impacts of distributed solar generation on a variety of circuit types.

The authors also profiled the Hawaiian Electric Company, which is the first utility to fully integrate a solar and wind forecasting tool into its operations. The utility, which gets a significant amount of power from those sources, uses a network of more than 50 sensors as well as weather prediction and statistical models to develop short-term and longer-range forecasts.

Distribution grid optimization
The electric grid is no longer one-way or even centralized. To be able to handle this evolution while providing reliable power, the Institute for Electric Innovation predicts that utilities will spend far more upgrading their distribution systems than they will on energy generation over the next few years.

The book highlights Council Lead Partner Enel, which is helping utilities optimize their grids. Enel is able to integrate 11 source systems, including billing, outage management, meter data management and others to improve reliability and reduce fraud and energy theft.

One of the utilities making dramatic strides in improving reliability is Centerpoint Energy, which serves more than five million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. Thanks to intelligent grid switching devices and the automation of 31 substations, it was able to improve reliability by 30% and localize faults in less than half the time it used to take. In more than a million cases, it restored power to customers before they even called to report an outage.

Better solutions for customers
The Institute for Electric Innovation says that about 75% of customers are highly satisfied with their utilities. Even though customers spend relatively little time interacting with their utilities, the strong satisfaction is due in part to new technology that provides more tools for engagement.

The case studies highlighted in the book show that it’s critical to give customers choices. Some customers want to do everything online; others want to be able to talk to someone immediately. The utilities that have very high levels of satisfaction make it easy for customers to get the level of service they want.

Further, while demand response programs are becoming increasingly important for utilities, customers like to have choices with those as well. The book profiled Austin Energy, which is among those making a transformation in this area. It used to be that customers got a thermostat from the utility when they signed up for one of these programs. Austin Energy is letting customers buy thermostats that they like, and ensuring its program works with them.

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