How Utilities Are Using Innovative Technology to Protect the Grid
Among the states hit the hardest by Hurricane Sandy, very few utility companies had adequate smart meter technology in place in order to efficiently restore power to customers within a timely period. Crises like Sandy have forced utilities to improve their response systems, many of which still work independently of one another.
There are five major technology areas that can give utilities a better view of their grid. These areas include smart meters and their communication systems; DMS, GIS and SCADA; outage management systems, mobile workforce management systems; and business analytics tools. These are all integral pieces of the grid, but separately, they can be difficult to manage. Fortunately, an Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) can integrate all of a utility’s response systems into one for maximum control and efficiency.
Outage Management and Mobile Workforce Systems
Outage management systems have been the core of utility control centers since the implementation of direct digital controls in the 1980s. Those systems analyzed patterns of phone calls and compared them to outages in the field. They were an improvement upon the wholly manual systems of the past, but early outage management capabilities were unable to reliably provide awareness based on varying situations. Newer systems have integrated digital mapping tools.
Smart meter systems have also enhanced monitoring capabilities, much like they did during Sandy, when utility Baltimore Gas & Electric was able to return power to its customers through the help of smart meter sensors. The meters enabled the utility to monitor outages by sending messages to see if the units responded. The process was worlds more efficient than calling customers by phone to check their power status. Within 48 hours, 90 percent of BGE’s customers had their power restored, and the company calculated that they had saved more than $1 million in labor costs by more efficiently dispatching workers and cutting the need for 6,000 truck deployments.
Utilities also use mobile workforce systems to dispatch crews and update work orders. Originally, outage systems and workforce systems were separate, but over the years, they have been merged through custom integration. Newer platforms offer the two systems in one package and have developed from laptop computers to smaller handheld devices.
The DMS, GIS and SCADA
A Distribution Management System (DMS) is a collection of applications used to monitor and control the entire distribution network. A DMS is designed to reduce outages, minimize outage time and maintain acceptable frequency and voltage levels. A GIS (geographic information system) is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze and manage all types of geographical data. They are most often used by utilities to track and monitor assets in the field. A SCADA is a type of industrial control system that operates with coded signals over communication channels to provide control of remote equipment. The traditional DMS integrates SCADA systems, mapping and demand modeling tools in one platform. In some instances, the outage and workforce platforms are fully integrated within the DMS, but they often run separately, as does a GIS.
An ADMS system combines all of these systems together while also incorporating new information from meters and sensors that have recently been deployed in the field. This could potentially enable a utility engineer to access any combination of data in one place, including location of workers, status of jobs, maps of the service territory and even social media feeds from customers citing outages. Beyond a crisis, the utility could monitor voltage levels, the amount of demand on the grid, and the performance of distributed systems like solar and batteries.
The delivery of ADMS technology has been delayed due to an array of factors. Many of the enabling devices were only deployed in the field as a result of the $90 billion stimulus package allotted to support renewable energy projects and smart grid technologies. Costs of equipment and software can also be a tough sell to regulators.
Still, major grid software and hardware developers such as GE, Schneider Electric and Siemens have increased their ADMS offerings and used extreme weather conditions as a way to sell utilities on their benefits. Utility adoption is increasing nationwide, but many are still missing out on the system that can streamline all of their response systems, protecting and strengthening their grid.
Ofwat allows retailers to raise prices from April
Retailers can recover a portion of excess bad debt by temporarily increasing prices from April 2022, according to an Ofwat statement.
The regulator confirmed its view that levels of bad debt costs across the business retail market are exceeding 2% of non-household revenue, thereby allowing "a temporary increase" in the maximum prices. Adjustments to price caps will apply for a minimum of two years to reduce the step changes in price that customers might experience.
Measures introduced since March 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19 could lead to retailers facing higher levels of customer bad debt. Retailers’ abilities to respond to this are expected to be constrained by Ofwat strengthening protections for non-household customers during Covid-19 and the presence of price caps.
In April last year, Ofwat committed to provide additional regulatory protection if bad debt costs across the market exceeded 2% of non-household revenue.
Georgina Mills, Business Retail Market Director at Ofwat said: “These decisions aim to protect the interests of non-household customers in the short and longer term, including from the risk of systemic Retailer failure as the business retail market continues to feel the impacts of COVID-19. By implementing market-wide adjustments to price caps, we aim to minimise any additional costs for customers in the shorter term by promoting efficiency and supporting competition.”
There are also three areas where Ofwat has not reached definitive conclusions and is seeking further evidence and views from stakeholders:
- Pooling excess bad debt costs – Ofwat proposes that the recovery of excess bad debt costs is pooled across all non-household customers, via a uniform uplift to price caps.
- Keeping open the option of not pursuing a true up – For example if outturn bad debt costs are not materially higher than the 2% threshold.
- Undertaking the true up – If a 'true up' is required, Ofwat has set out how it expects this to work in practice.
Further consultation on the proposed adjustments to REC price caps can be expected by December.
"While it’s great that regulators are helping the industry deal with bad debt in the wake of the pandemic, raising prices only treats the symptoms. Instead, water companies should head upstream, using customer data to identify and rectify the causes of bad debt, stop it at source and help prevent it from occurring in the first place," she said.
"While recouping costs is a must, water companies shouldn’t just rely on the regulator. Data can help companies segment customers, identify and assist customers that are struggling financially, avoiding penalising the entire customer in tackling the cause of the issue."
United Utilities picks up pipeline award
A race-against-time plumbing job to connect four huge water pipes into the large Haweswater Aqueduct in Cumbria saw United Utilities awarded Utility Project of the Year by Pipeline Industries Guild.
The Hallbank project, near Kendal, was completed within a tight eight-day deadline, in a storm and during the second COVID lockdown last November – and with three hours to spare. Principal construction manager John Dawson said the project helped boost the resilience of water supplies across the North West.
“I think what made us stand out was the scale, the use of future technology and the fact that we were really just one team, working collaboratively for a common goal," he said.
Camus Energy secures $16m funding
Camus Energy, which provides advanced grid management technology, has secured $16 million in a Series A round, led by Park West Asset Management and joined by Congruent Ventures, Wave Capital and other investors, including an investor-owned utility. Camus will leverage the operating capital to expand its grid management software platform to meet growing demand from utilities across North America.
As local utilities look to save money and increase their use of clean energy by tapping into low-cost and low-carbon local resources, Camus' grid management platform provides connectivity between the utility's operations team, its grid-connected equipment and customer devices.