By Kirby Parr
Smart Energy International Excellence Award: North America: Innovation
A couple of years ago I was sitting in my office reflecting on all the changes that had occurred at our public utility over the past few years. We had updated our 40-year-old offices, created a state-of-the-art dispatch centre, run fibre to all of our substations and started a fibre-to-the-home project (FTTH) offering triple play services to about a third of our customer base.
It was about this time that our CEO stepped in my office and tasked my department with leading the charge on finding an AMI solution that would lower operating costs now, and be the first step in a smart grid solution that would allow us to control demand, monitor our system and provide meaningful data and rate options to our customers.
We realised early on that there were a few base requirements that we must have for our AMI system. Fast reliable two-way communications was obviously at the top of the page. After that requirement is met, everything else seems in the realm of possibility. Operational efficiency was second on the list, followed closely by enhanced customer service and all the smart grid functionality, but it was operational efficiency that took us in a whole new direction. About a third of our customer base had FTTH passing by or going into their locations; this service was concentrated mostly in and around the city of Pulaski, but we cover most of the county with electric service. Although the plan is to expand the FTTH services, we knew that this would be a slow process if done as it was financially feasible. We knew we wanted fibre to be the lightning-fast backbone of our AMI, but to achieve operational efficiency we needed to deploy across our entire service territory now. We needed a hybrid solution.
As we researched communication, vendor, and data options, the answer took shape. We would install multiple communication paths through one vendor and software. In the areas that we already have fibre deployed, we are using that infrastructure for our backhaul communications. Data from a local network of meters is brought to a backhaul collection point via wireless and then back to our office over the fibre. In those areas where fibre is not available, the local network functions exactly the same but the backhaul is a 220 MHz communication path that sends the information to a tower we have installed at one of the substations. The data is transferred from the tower to our office via the fibre network we had previously run to all our subs.
Both networks and all the associated data are managed from the same system, making it much simpler for our meter technicians and the IT department. The true beauty of this arrangement is that as the FTTH services are expanded we can simply replace wireless backhaul collection points with fibre collection points. This will allow us to move the communication and data burdens over to the bandwidth-rich fibre network. By doing so, we gain the advantages that fibre offers. First, it’s a redundant system with multiple paths back to the office; second, it will provide faster communications and more easily handle the growing amount of data that we will be requiring of our system as we expand further into the world of smart grid; and third, with some indulgence on my part, it gives the Energy Services Department a vast resource of people and equipment already working to support the triple play services offered on the fibre network.
Because of our “hybrid” system, we are starting to place completed check marks beside the requirements that we listed out so many months ago. We have gained operational efficiency by reducing truck rolls to the far reaches of our system. We are improving customer service by providing detailed data to customers with high bill concerns and by becoming more proactive in addressing power quality issues. We are moving into the smart grid arena by using real customer data to better understand how our system is functioning. We are taking the steps needed to move forward with wholesale rate changes, TOU rates, demand response, distributed generation and pending legislation.
Our industry has seen a lot of changes over the past few years. AMI and smart grid are not the drivers of change; instead, they are a developing tool to manage the changes that we face, and my guess is that this is just the beginning. This is a time for action; reflection can wait.