Consumers Energy's measured steps

Utility tackles AMI, focuses on customer needs

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine January/February 2011

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WAYNE LONGCORE HAS A PENCHANT FOR MAKING PEOPLE think, a flair for analogy and a sense of timing.

As he guides a visitor through Consumers Energy's Smart Services Learning Center in Jackson, Michigan, explaining distribution automation or in-home energy displays, Longcore combines professorial erudition with a magician's sense of drama.

He sets up a potential scenario and flicks a switch. "Lightning" flashes, a tree limb falls, a circuit goes out and a recloser restores the simulated grid. How would that affect a customer? He enters a simulated home environment and segues to energy management options without pause.

A moment later, Longcore, who serves as the utility's director of enterprise architecture and standards, cracks open a door to a back room. A visitor glimpses racks upon racks of "smart" digital meters wired to servers-the reason for my visit and his current, in-house focus as his utility rigorously tests and assesses advanced metering infrastructure, or AMI, for future deployment.

Assisting nationally, evaluating locally
"Think globally, act locally" applies here. Consumers Energy stands out for its measured steps to assist national efforts toward standards and interoperability even as it painstakingly evaluates systems destined for its own service territory. (As his title implies, Longcore splits his time between the two efforts.) The utility is also ensuring that what works in the lab will scale to the utility's sprawling territory.

"We're ensuring that this larger environment isn't an assumption," Longcore told me. "We're ensuring that it truly has been engineered to work cohesively," he said.

Consumers Energy's dual approach-testing and assessment for its own system, participating in national standards and interoperability efforts-aims to produce the best results at home while contributing to an ecosystem of interoperable, cheaper technologies.

"How can we drive the entire cost curve down by achieving economies of scale?" Longcore asked, rhetorically. "We're not locking ourselves into a Consumers Energy-only vision. We have to take a larger view. Not because we're altruistic. We're doing this because it's simply a requirement to enable customers to buy and use interoperable devices throughout our service territory, where there are other investorowned utilities, municipals and coops. And we need to ensure that our customers will be able to buy devices from a larger smart grid ecosystem."

Exploring both sides of the equation
Consumers Energy, Michigan's second-largest natural gas and electric utility, provides service to more than 6 million of the state's 10 million customers in all 68 counties in the state's Lower Peninsula. (The utility has 1.8 million electricity meters and 1.7 million natural gas meters in its service territory.) Michigan has been particularly hard hit by the national recession and the Michigan Public Service Commission has emphasized value and financial restraint to its utilities as they approach grid modernization.

As the utility has explored systems design and standards development for smart grid and fleshed out its technology roadmap, it has also explored the customer side of the equation.

"What are the opportunities out there?" asked Sue Swan, vice president for smart grid development. "How will our customers react? How interested will they be in dynamic pricing, for example? What comes to mind when you throw out the term `smart grid'?

"First, we found that the level of knowledge and understanding about smart grid is very low," Swan told me.

"Second, we found that residential customers are not all the same," she added.

Consumers Energy customers are variously interested in the new technology and control over their energy use, cost-conscious, eco-conscious or comfort-oriented.

What's important
Over the past year, pilot studies of consumer involvement with basic or detailed energy use information, with and without in-home displays, with static and dynamic rates, has given the utility a clearer sense of how its customers will respond to new options.

"To be successful in smart grid deployment and deliver value on the investment, we really need to have our customers on board," Swan continued. "We need to know what's important to them and make that part of the program. This has a two-fold impact; a positive response from our customers will result in more support from our regulators. We are developing a vision statement that details the customer benefits of smart grid, in the context of supporting Michigan and our economy. Not the technology or the business case, but what's important to our customers."

Consumers Energy has a set of measured steps for consumer involvement, just as it has a roadmap for technology adoption. For consumers, the journey begins with "enablement" via smart meters. Next, "enlightenment," or energy use feedback via in-home displays or Web portals. The third step is "empowerment," or a choice among options (rate plans, for example).

A sequence of systems
The technology roadmap, of course, is considerably more complex. At the Smart Services Learning Center, a large flat screen offers a geospatial look at the Consumers Energy service territory, including terrain, natural features, vegetative cover, cities, roads, buildings and the grid itself.

Longcore, with remote control in hand, clearly enjoys dazzling a visitor with a demonstration of how those elements combine, underscoring his points on the utility's choice of various smart grid elements such as meters, mesh networks, backhaul networks and how natural and man-made elements might affect them.

"For Consumers Energy, one of the first steps is to gather geospatial information and ensure that our GIS is capable of dealing with distributed devices such as meters," Longcore said.

"The second step is understanding how this larger information model and architecture are going to work together," he continued. "Without that, if we build systems that don't have interoperable standards for data, then we'll end up with many interfaces that cause us long-term problems.

"We're taking a 'layered' approach to systems," Swan said. "You have to have foundational systems first to deliver basic functionality and the ability to manage large quantities of data. If you look at the existing foundation, that would include enterprise software, an outage management system (OMS) and a geospatial information system. Those are the tickets to entry. Advanced metering and the communication network to support it would be the next layer."

"If you want to leverage that investment and get full functionality out of your smart meter and communication network, then you need to go to the next step," she said. "That might mean adding devices that provide self-healing capability like a more robust distribution management system. We recently upgraded our GIS and replaced our OMS systems; the distribution management system is something we are just starting to evaluate."

Network needs differ
For Consumers Energy, a "hybrid network" will deal with distributed grid devices differently than customer devices, according to Longcore.

"We believe that some portions of that hybrid network will be a private network, based on our need for reliability, security, throughput, latency and other factors," he said. "And we believe other portions of that communications network will be public networks."

"The unknowns?" Longcore mulled. "We're deploying a change in how customers get information and how they react to that information. Eventually, they'll receive energy use and management information on mobile devices and have the ability to respond on the go.

"As the rise in the intelligence of devices in the home rivals the rise in intelligence of cell phones over the past 20 years, that shift in how the grid works will be as different from today as if we'd asked a bag phone user in 1990 what they'll use their phone for. We know they'll interact with mobile applications. The unknown is that we don't know what those apps will be."

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