Resilient organization

APS builds flexibility into its smart grid definition

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine November/December 2010

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WITH MORE THAN A MILLION RETAIL CUStomers and 7,200 employees in 2009, and more than 42,000 square miles of service territory, Arizona Public Service Company (APS) is certainly no small fry in the utility world.

But APS proves big doesn't mean slow-particularly when talking about smart grid. For APS, smart grid comes down to being a resilient organization with the flexibility to adapt to technology changes rapidly coming its way. Let's look at what smart grid means to APS and its customers, and how the concept of a smarter grid will change for APS.

Defining smart grid for APS

At an industrywide level, Ken Bohlen, vice president and chief information officer for APS, thinks that the smart grid definition is still evolving for everyone. "Smart grid is one of those terms that's like what cloud computing was several years ago. Everybody wants it, but nobody knows what it is. We're still in that evolutionary state where, in some cases, smart grid refers to smart meters, in other cases it could be much more comprehensive."

Definitions can certainly vary by utility, so what does smart grid mean to APS? "The way we've defined it-we're still working through some of the details-is taking the existing infrastructure as we know it today and adding on top of that a level of intelligence, thus qualifying it as smart," said Bohlen. A simple enough definition, but for APS this can include numerous complex components like smart meters, electric vehicles, intelligent homes, smarter operation centers and renewables. "In our definition, all of it plays into the smart arena," he said.

Another key component in APS's smart arena is the data analysis, which is critical for the success of these other new components. For example, APS has installed about 500,000 smart meters to date. According to Bohlen, these components "clearly bring with them a whole new realm of opportunity to think about analytics. We're still in that infancy stage of `now we got the data, what does it tell us?'"

As APS collects the data, it is working to remain flexible with how it analyzes it. "We're trying to be very open-minded so we don't get ourselves into the trap of saying `this is what we're looking for,'" said Bohlen. "Oftentimes in analytics, things come to you in ways you weren't expecting or weren't aware of."

Whether dealing with data or integrating renewables, what sets APS apart in terms of smart grid is comprehensiveness and flexibility. "We are in some ways more holistic than other utility companies that may focus on a particular component," said Bohlen. "We're also working to be flexible in our approach. We're trying to allow the new technology that's coming-because it's rapidly coming at us-to help us define what the future could be. We're not trying to impose a specific vision of smart grid on the future. Smart grid will continue to change and evolve."

Smart grid for customers

APS's view of smart grid may not radically differ from many other utilities, but APS sees significant differences between its internal smart grid definition and how the utility defines it for its customers. As seen with examples such as SmartGridCity, if the focus is on the technology, and the technology doesn't work exactly as planned, smart grid can leave a bad taste in customers' mouths.

So instead of focusing on the smart grid technology, APS focuses on smart grid benefits for its customers. Dan Wool, corporate communications consultant for APS, pointed out that the utility is looking at smart grid benefits in a number of different ways. For instance, APS is running a pilot project in Flagstaff, Arizona, that uses self-healing grid technologies. APS is letting customers know about the project through its benefits. "For instance, we had a lightning strike on the system, and the self-healing technologies were able to reroute power within three seconds, preventing what would have been a 40-plus minute outage around noon in downtown Flagstaff," Wool said.

Bohlen added, "We don't go to the community and say `oh boy, we know you've been waiting for smart grid and here it is.' We're very cautious. War stories get out there and people will interpret what you say the way they want to hear it.

"In Flagstaff, it is self-healing technologies that helped prevent the blackout, but we talk about it in terms of benefits to people and not try to label it as smart grid. If you oversell it and you hiccup, then customers are going to say `smart grid did this to us' and its going to be `big bad utility companies don't understand us.'"

Will smart grid disappear?

As utilities adopt smart grid technologies and business practices, will smart grid just become part of everyday utility business? Essentially, will smart grid become the norm rather than the exception, and we can just go back to calling it the grid? Bohlen doesn't see that happening any time soon. "One driver that's going to keep it in the limelight is security. Smart grid provides a lot of opportunity for a lot of smart people to interact with this grid. That arena is going to continue to increase."

Barbara Lockwood, APS's director of smart grid development, agrees that smart grid will stick around for a while. "New technology becomes business as usual, which I think is true, but the caveat to that is, in the meantime it's going to fundamentally change our business and how we work," she said. "So it will become our future, but along the way it will fundamentally change our job."

Is there a better term for it? "No, not really," Bohlen said. "The nomenclature is simply the fact that we have this aging analog environment and the technology was bound to catch up with it. With smart grid, I think a key term is that you need to develop a `resilient organization,' so if something new comes along, we can readily put it in our environment and figure out how to use it."

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