Discovering new frontiers in Houston, Texas


It was fitting that Itron Utility Week 2017 explored new frontiers in Houston, Texas, the home of NASA and considered by many as the energy capital of the US. More than 1,000 attendees connected for three days to share experiences and insights.

In the city, home to astronauts and space programmes, the conference focused on the theme of new frontiers for the utility industry, encouraging innovation and taking the next leap in the industry.

Host utility CenterPoint Energy shares Hurricane Harvey response

The event took place just months after Hurricane Harvey impacted Houston. Taking a closer look at the storm’s impact, Scott Prochazka, president and CEO of CenterPoint Energy, discussed how the utility responded to this disaster in its service territory.

He presented on the first day of the conference and discussed CenterPoint Energy’s history and vision for the future, stressing the deployment of smart meters, which allow the company to analyse 230 million data points per day. This technology was instrumental in avoiding 45 million outage minutes during Hurricane Harvey.

During the storm, CenterPoint Energy had more than 15 drones flying hundreds of missions around their service territory. They were able to assess damage, efficiently direct crews to accessible locations, accelerate restoration and show customers what was going on with drone video. Emphasising the importance of new technology, Prochazka said: “Our industry must embrace technology and we must meet customer needs.” As utilities look to the future, Prochazka identified four focus areas for utilities to prioritise, which included customers, technology development, integrated networks and data analytics.

By delivering greater value to customers and focusing on their needs, utilities can engage customers in the process of improving the network. Utilities also must embrace new technology to disrupt the industry and improve customer experience.

Prochazka highlighted CenterPoint Energy’s technology developments such as installing advanced distribution management systems and intelligent grid devices, improving the utility’s reliability by 25% and saving customers 245,000,000 outage minutes. This technology enables integrated networks that efficiently deliver smart energy. Finally, more advanced analysis of data empowers real-time information, automation, security and reliance supporting the customer. Closing, he said that leaders in the industry do not simply manage changes in the industry, but lead the transformation.

Addressing the Energy-Water Nexus

In light of Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters, Dr Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Thirst for Power, discussed the interdependence of energy and water, known as the energy-water nexus. When natural disasters strike, they expose vulnerability in the system. For example, in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria resulted in massive electricity outages, which halted water treatment and impeded people’s access to clean water.

Addressing these vulnerabilities, open data platforms can not only tackle cost for utilities, but also provide resilience in the face of natural disasters, preventing compromised energy and water systems.

Dr Webber also highlighted a group of students who are learning about energy challenges through a curriculum developed in conjunction with Itron called Resourcefulness. The students all attend a magnet school that is adopting the curriculum into their core syllabus. These students represent potential industry leaders to succeed an aging workforce.

The active network for today and tomorrow

Itron President and CEO Philip Mezey spoke about challenges the utility industry is facing. From an aging workforce and infrastructure to transmission and distribution losses, the industry is in the midst of significant challenges. Mezey said utilities that adapt to changes will run their business efficiently and enhance customer service.

Further, he stressed that the next-generation grid – the Active Grid – can serve as a foundation to address these needs. However, utilising this technology is difficult because utilities must drive down the cost of implementing and supporting this system based on decreases in demand.

Despite the lack of growing demand, utilities continue to invest in capital spending. For example, in the gas industry, more than 50% of the gas pipeline infrastructure in the United States was put in before 1970. Gas utilities are investing heavily in modernising the infrastructure, but it is a massive undertaking.

Utilities must deploy capital more effectively and reprioritise target investment to achieve needed modernisation and grid maintenance. Mezey emphasised the importance of investment in technology that allows for an Active Grid, enabling the business processes necessary for utilities today, while introducing the tools for tomorrow.

“The balance of supply and demand for energy is going to become increasingly challenging in the coming years,” Mezey said. “We need to invest with you in technology that allows for that more Active Grid and our ability to create balance behind the meter and in front of the meter.” Harnessing the Active Grid can improve business efficiency, increase grid reliability and resiliency, integrate distributed energy resources, and meet greater customer expectations.

The Active Grid provides an integrated radio frequency, powerline carrier, cellular communications network that allows multiple modes of communication. Through this approach, the Active Grid drives improved outcomes to address the challenges the industry faces.

Of course, this system involves many moving parts to successfully operate. To equip the Active Grid, utilities must embrace cloud technology, which remotely manages the systems and analyses the data to drive business outcomes.

Smart cities strategy: partner for success

Cities are optimising the Active Grid to create safer, more sustainable, cleaner cities for citizens. By unifying data collection across an entire city through public-private collaboration, smart cities’ goals are in reach. This provides numerous advantages for utilities including driving demand for smart energy and water delivery.

The Active Grid creates an opportunity for utilities to play an important role in building smart cities by stepping into partnerships with cities, universities and regulatory agencies.

This idea is not hypothetical. Envision Charlotte demonstrated this by showcasing their smart city solutions at the conference.

Through a collaboration with Duke Energy, Envision Charlotte reduced energy usage in the centre of Charlotte, North Carolina by 19%, which is equivalent to taking 11,000 cars off the road. Leveraging smart technology that produces insightful data, the cooperative helped residents save money on their bills and educated them on energy usage.

Through interactive meters and an open communications platform, the city of Charlotte and local utilities are realising smart city solutions today on the Active Grid.

Women in utilities, balancing work and life

The conference also featured keynote speakers who brought unique perspectives, such as Samantha Ettus, a renowned worklife wellness expert and best-selling author.

Ettus addressed the Women in Utilities Reception during Itron Utility Week, speaking on sustaining a thriving personal and professional life at the same time. Her presentation provided tools for both men and women to create achievable goals in all areas of their lives. More specifically, she sought to empower women in the utility industry by encouraging them to reject gender stereotypes. She also addressed the lack of women engineers, executives and innovators that has existed for more than 40 years.

Next year in the valley of the sun

Itron Utility Week 2017 successfully brought together industry leaders to address tomorrow’s challenges today. Itron closed the conference by announcing that next year’s Itron Utility Week will be in Phoenix, Arizona. In the meantime, the conversations from the event will continue to inspire us to build a more resourceful world.

“We are standing right on the edge of what’s possible,” Mezey said. “There is so much more that we can do with all of the waste and inefficiency that exists in how we distribute electricity, gas and water and how customers use it; there are tremendous opportunities to redefine what is possible.” MI


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