Utilities are looking to a new generation of digital projects. Recent reports on digital solutions indicate long-term strategies are becoming a norm across the power industry.
One prime example is the New York Power Authority (NYPA), with its new digital laboratory and a power flow control project aimed at optimizing renewable resources in the upstate region.
NYPA has for years said that it wants to become "the world's first fully-digital utility." Beginning next month, NYPA will start testing hardware and physically connecting relays to its new Advanced Grid Innovation Laboratory for Energy (AGILe). The public power utility wants to find new ways of leveraging upstate wind and hydroelectric generation, and is installing a distributed flexible alternating current transmission system capable of moving power from congested lines to underutilized ones along NYPA's north-south corridor.
Utility officials say NYPA's project could provide significant, tangible impacts for customers while moving beyond what some consider the obvious realm of digital solutions.
"The perception is that [digitalization] revolves around data analytics," NYPA Vice President of Strategic Operations Ricardo da Silva told Utility Dive. "But in addition to that, there are other digital technologies coming to light that we can use to better manage the grid."
Da Silva said NYPA is working to quickly roll out sensors and monitoring equipment that will give it increasing visibility into grid operations, while at the same time focusing on equipping its employees with new access and digital tools.
NYPA's AGILe lab's digital strategy serves to bring more renewables onto the grid while also helping to reduce costs for the state and ratepayers.
Advanced power flows are just one of the new technologies utilities are embracing. "In a distributed fashion, we will be able to deploy devices that will be able to better control the flow of power through existing lines," da Silva said.
NYPA is at the forefront of the industry's embrace of new digital technologies, but new research shows a wider trend of utilities aiming for digitization. Zpryme and ABB released a report in March showing that utilities are still learning how to take large amounts of grid data and find ways to turn it into actionable information.
"Utilities already collect a tremendous amount of data, but they are still in the early stages of applying it," Gary Rackliffe, ABB's vice president of smart grid and grid modernization, said in a statement.
The new research, which included surveys of 150 utility industry professionals, paints a picture of a "digital maturity curve" that shows how utilities can modernize and become more resilient, automated and customer-focused.
There has been substantial investment in grid modernization in the last decade, but "our research shows that further digital advancement is crucial for utilities to drive operational, financial, and customer success," Christopher Moyer, Zpryme senior content manager, said in a statement.
Zpryme's report lays out a three-step progression that starts with digitization and continues with digitalization, which it considers the "transformation of business processes by end-to-end sharing of information across the entire enterprise," ultimately improving operations and customer experience.
"This is the stage where innovative utilities will move beyond 'smart' and where a true [return on investment] begins to crystalize around the collection and use of data," the paper posits. The third step is enterprise integration, at which point Zpryme envisions a utility that has a 360-degree view of the customer and can "continuously and seamlessly innovate" as opportunities present.
"After utilities have deployed sensors, software and integrated communications networks throughout the grid, they will begin to experience the true benefits of digital maturity," the firm says. But in order to provide customers with more control over their energy choices, Zpryme says "utilities will need to focus on the deployment of software" to better manage demand response, electric vehicles and distributed energy resources.
New MISO research shows rising digital investments, need for flexibility
New research from the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) echoes many of Zpryme's findings. The report, "MISO Forward," was released March 19 and identifies three trends the grid operator says is driving the sector: de-marginalization, decentralization and digitization. The mix, according to MISO, is creating profound changes in markets and on the electric grid.
The grid operator says de-marginalization refers to resources capable of generating the next necessary increment of energy at no additional cost (renewables), or at very low costs (highly-efficient gas-fired generation), while decentralization looks to the growth of behind-the-meter resources.
The grid operator defines digitalization as the "revolution in information and communication technologies that is a disruptive force in today's energy economy."
MISO's analysis concluded demand patterns are changing due to digitalization and distributed energy resources, "with end users able to schedule their demand." And the pace of digitalization "may contribute to how quickly variability and uncertainty grow but also may provide new possibilities for managing change."
MISO's forecast shows digital investments in the United States growing from $59 billion in 2017, to $79 billion in 2023, led by spending on smart meters and other grid-edge devices.
Digitalization can essentially help wring inefficiency out of an increasingly flexible grid, MISO concluded, "especially with the opportunities presented by digitalization and grid-integrated electrification of less traditional uses like transportation," the report says.
On the ground: 'Sensors that don't really exist yet'
NYPA's project, part of an optimization effort called the Moses Adirondack Advanced Power Flow Control Project, is an example of how utilities see not just operational improvements but also savings in digitalization.
The utility's AGILe lab is located at its White Plains, N.Y., office and was developed to serve as a "replica" of the New York state system, said da Silva. The lab was developed in collaboration with other utilities in the state and will act as a resource to further digitalization efforts.
Prior to AGILe, NYPA would turn to external vendors to perform those studies. Developing digitalization capabilities in-house allows the utility to better manage its costs and testing timeframes, while also building the organization's growth and expertise.
"We're not only realizing cost and time savings on the studies themselves, but we're also proving technology that will add benefits for NYPA operations, reduce the cost of energy for customers across the state, and cut CO2 emissions through the use of clean, renewable power from northern New York," NYPA smart grid systems engineer Ahad Esmaeilian said in a statement.
NYPA's efforts to become a wholly-digital utility have largely been a success, said da Silva, though there is always work to be done.
"The pace of digitalization and technology is evolving very quickly," he said. NYPA will continue to work on its data aggregation efforts, and is currently in the second phase of a sensor deployment campaign. The initial steps involved connecting existing systems to bring data back to a central location. Now, the utility is working to deploy almost a thousands sensors across its transmission and distribution assets.
While the second phase is expected to be complete in the next year, a final phase is more open-ended. "The third phase to that program is about the sensors that don't really exist yet," said da Silva.
Simultaneously, NYPA is also pressing ahead with a "digital worker" program, said da Silva. "How can we equip our people, be it in the office environment or in the field, with digital tools they need?"
Also in New York, the investor-owned utility Consolidated Edison points to its smart meter program as an example of its growing focus on digital solutions. Digitalization "is affecting every aspect of Con Edison's business," spokesman Bob McGee told Utility Dive.
The utility will roll out more than 3 million smart electric meters in the state by 2022, which McGee said "will allow us to operate the grid at optimum voltage levels [and] regulate our voltage delivery so that it's much more exact, which is much more efficient."
Smart meters also will give customers greater insight into their energy use, which McGee said will "prompt opportunities to save on energy costs."
On the West Coast, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is looking to smart meters as a way to make its own system safer. The utility's wildfire mitigation plan it filed with regulators this year includes an "enhanced wires down detection project" that includes using single-phase advanced metering infrastructure to send real-time alarms to the utility's distribution management system when voltage drops.
"This enhanced situational awareness can help detect and locate downed distribution lines more quickly to enable faster response," the utility said. "Faster response may not only reduce the amount of time the line is down but may also allow first responders to more quickly extinguish wire down-related ignitions if they occur."
PG&E also said it is "evaluating emerging sensor technologies" to enable real-time system monitoring and situational awareness and is "advancing the use of primary line sensor fault measurements."
While there has been some slowing in the rollout of smart meters, as regulators scrutinize the business case, the devices are considered essential to creating a cleaner and more efficient grid. Zpryme's report concluded that "capturing asset, meter, and customer data digitally is the foundational building block for the modern utility."