TX, CA utilities share smart grid successes

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As deployments of advanced metering systems (AMS) expand, so does the electric grid's transformation into a truly intelligent grid, capable of handling robust analytics applications and creating unimagined efficiencies. Grid investments can be expensive, however, and utilities are looking to squeeze the most value possible out of these upgrades. Getting there means embracing one of the grid's biggest assets -- the ability to anticipate both problems and solutions to lower costs and improve reliability.

Utilities are making gains on smart grid savings.

It's a huge hurdle to clear, as some people still view smart grid as unnecessary bells and whistles to the system. After all, utilities have used what is largely the same system and meters for decades. But the fact of the matter is that analytics and smart grid are here to stay and have become an economic imperative for utilities.

Texas tackles grid data

This is especially true in Texas, a state with an independent grid and one of the largest energy markets in the country. At CenterPoint Energy, an energy delivery company serving the country's fourth-largest city, keeping operations running smoothly is an enormous undertaking. The utility's AMS performs approximately 79.5 billion meter reads per year and gathers meter data on everything from event notifications, health alerts, outage events and firmware updates.

Managing this influx in data, which will total roughly 30 terabytes (or nearly 2,000 smartphones) is both a challenge and a huge business opportunity. With that in mind, the utility is justifiably excited about getting to work to maximize benefits. Put simply, CenterPoint Energy realizes the time is now to accelerate research and deploy new types of analytics.

"We knew the smart grid and the intelligent grid would change our business," said William Bell, an AMS an analytics technology director at CenterPoint in an interview with FierceSmartGrid. "If we can get people to change their behavior, we don't have to build power plants."

Another big advantage is the ability to better track outages and personnel in the field, which saves time and money and increases the amount of resources that can be spend elsewhere in the grid.

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In many ways, the more you know, the more grid vulnerabilities come into view. But this is a blessing in disguise for utilities, as it allows them to fix small problems before they have the chance to wreak havoc. ___________________________

"One of the things we are trying to do is make sure that we're always sending the right crew to the right place at the right time," Bell said.

Although CenterPoint was not supposed to finish its AMS roll out until 2014, the project is already done thanks, in part, to a $200 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.  It also owes a lot to its forward-thinking attitude on analytics, and the establishment in 2011 of a "business transformation" team. CenterPoint currently has more than 10 analytics pilots and initiatives underway in a variety of grid areas.

CenterPoint's Financial and Regulatory Month End Revenue Estimation is one initiative that is already having a major impact on finances. It has increased the accuracy of required monthly revenue projections (which were rarely correct, according to Bell) to within about 0.2 percent of actual revenue. Not only does this help improve relationships with both regulators and shareholders but it is "true transparency and good corporate citizenship," Bell said.

California turns up the smart grid heat

California is in a similar situation to Texas, and has long been on the front lines of smart grid implementation. Driven, in part, by regulatory necessity and customer behavior, the state continues to push forward with new technologies, and San Diego Gas & Electric is no exception. The utility filed its official smart grid deployment plan back in June 2011, but has been at work on it since 2006. SDG&E now has about 40 smart grid projects underway, including innovations in wireless signal technology, outage monitoring and billing, among others things.

New advances in voltage monitoring and wireless fault indicators have allowed SDG&E to fix outages they didn't even know existed, and fix them fast -- often times before a customer even notices. For example, a customer might not report a brief outage, despite the fact that it may signal a deeper grid problem. Through analytics, SDG&E can anticipate the problem and correct it before a serious impact can occur.

In many ways, the more you know, the more grid vulnerabilities come into view. But this is a blessing in disguise for utilities, as it allows them to fix small problems before they have the chance to wreak havoc.

"These problems are new. There's nowhere to go to 'buy' a smart grid," said Lee Krevat, Director of SDG&E's smart grid initiative, in an interview with FierceSmartGrid.. "This is about new technology to mitigate issues that are being created by great movements of our customers."

SDG&E realizes that the evolution to a smart grid is here to stay and feels strongly about tackling the majority of problems with in-house staff.

"This is the future of our industry and it doesn't make sense to outsource our future," he said.

No time to delay

Despite any hang ups along the way, both CenterPoint and SDG&E have been able to use smart grid technology to help economize time and money and improve reliability.

"It's been an evolution of leveraging technology in order to do a better job," said Krevat.

Admittedly, not all utilities are operating on as high a level as those in Texas or California, be it out of fear of investment risk or a lack of resources. There is still time, at least for now, for everyone to get into the game.

"Don't be afraid," Bell advised. "[Analtyics] is the future. It's now, it's time, it's ready. Go forth and make your customers happy."