San Diego Gas & Electric

UtiliQ’s most intelligent utility forges ahead

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine January/February 2011


FOR THE SECOND STRAIGHT YEAR, SEMPRA Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) led the pack as the most intelligent utility in the United States, according to our annual UtiliQ survey of this country's electric utilities.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is a regulated public utility that supplies power to 1.4 million business and residential customers spread across a 4,100-square-mile service area that includes two counties and 25 communities. The utility's prescient move into the smart grid arena began with its implementation of a comprehensive smart meter system.

Smart meter deployment nearly finished
The utility's smart meter program includes 1.4 million smart meters (which are all due to be deployed, as well as endpoints, by the end of 2011), as well as 900,000 gas modules. These will enable a true smart metering environment that will allow for remote measuring of energy usage; provide twoway communication between SDG&E and the electricity meters, as well as communication inside the customer premises via home area networks (HAN); and also tie gas meters into the smart metering initiative.

As well, the meters enable remote disconnect and reconnect capability for residential electric meters, and present data to consumers and customer service representatives through Web and phone (and eventually personal devices). SDG&E's smart meter program also includes 57,000 programmable thermostats capable of communicating with the HAN.

I asked Lee Krevat, director of the smart grid initiative for both SDG&E and Sempra Energy's other California regulated utility, Southern California Gas Company, about the lessons learned from the utility's smart meter implementation, after having installed its one millionth smart meter in mid-November 2010.

"Customer outreach is crucial," Krevat told me. "Security needs to be accounted for at project conception; it should not be added in later. Technology and use cases will continue to evolve," he said. "Design with this in mind."

Leveraging technology to increase renewables
Advanced smart grid technologies are clearly tools for SDG&E with regard to facilitating a state-required 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and supplying 33 percent of customer energy needs by renewable energy sources, by 2020. I asked Krevat if he felt these stipulations meant a change in the way SDG&E has approached its smart grid roadmap (as opposed to the approach another utility outside California may have taken).

"Early in our implementation of smart grid technology, we were focused on more typical industry drivers: safety, reliability and efficiency," Krevat said. "While we continue to pursue those customer benefits, we are increasingly driven by leveraging smart grid technology to increase integration of intermittent renewable generation and providing our customers with the data and tools to improve their efficient use of energy."

To this end, as but one example, SDG&E in the past eight months has announced three power purchase agreements for solar photovoltaic energy from California's Imperial Valley. These three agreements will deliver approximately 300 MW of new renewable power to the utility's service territory across SDG&E's Sunrise Powerlink, a 120-mile, 500-kv electric transmission line due to be completed in 2012.

Desert-based microgrid demonstration
The utility is exploring other smart grid technologies, too. SDG&E's Borrego Springs microgrid demonstration project, a three-year pilot program of sensors, communications and control equipment, has been designed to incorporate solar power generators on homes and small businesses, coordinate new peak load management technology, leverage smart meters and integrate and remotely control distributed generation storage devices to allow access to electricity in emergencies. It is scheduled to be installed in 2011.

Borrego Springs, a small town (population 2,535) on the edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, will serve as a microgrid test bed for SDG&E to experiment with "self-healing" in the event of damage to part of the utility's grid; to set up batteries to assist in smoothing peak usage; and to install home area networks to assist the utility and its customers in managing and adjusting power usage. Batteries will also be installed on homes with solar panels, to aid in filling the gaps in power supplied from the panels during the day. These smaller batteries could also feed emergency supply back to the grid for a short period when needed.

"In addition to microgrid technology, the Borrego Springs project will teach us about numerous technologies, from battery storage to fuel cells, to balancing load on a circuit-by-circuit basis," Krevat explained. "This technology has the potential to lead to increased reliability."

The electric vehicle revolution is well under way within the utility's territory, too. Krevat noted that Nissan Leaf battery electric vehicles began deployment in San Diego in mid-December. "In addition to providing energy independence for the U.S., the storage within these vehicles has the potential to reduce peak load, mitigate intermittency associated with renewable energy and decrease overall costs for the consumer," he said.

Consumer still key
The consumer is key, according to Krevat, in planning a utility's smart grid implementation. "Customer benefits need to drive any smart grid roadmap and implementation. The benefits need to be clear, communicated well and easy to understand," he said. "In California, customers have shown a preference for increased choice, convenience and control of their energy usage, resource sustainability, greater efficiency, safety and continued `best of the west' reliability. Utilities need to consider smart grid benefits from a customer perspective."

SDG&E has implemented more traditional energy efficiency and demand response programs and has also given its customers the option of accessing their hourly usage data via Google's PowerMeter. Residential customers with only one electric meter installed at their premises, who have had the new meter installed for one to three months and are a members of SDG&E's online account services, are eligible to sign up for the Google PowerMeter program.

The utility is ramping up its demand response offerings, as well, according to Krevat. "We will soon be deploying a `peak time rebate' program that will reward customers for conservation at times when energy is in short supply," he said.


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The Development of Smart grids

As things stand it does seem that smart grids will only be implementable on micro grid scale for the present. As far as using renewable technologies are concerned it seems to impractical to mount the PV etc on roof tops and buy energy. It is better to set up 100 MW or even 1000 MW Solar power plants and then average out the cost of energy. Small plants will only be for standalone use.It is necessary to note that Thermostat settings and giving HAN connectivity could increase the cost of installation when very simple devices are available since long.Afterall the load cycles are well registered in the Utility archives and the same effect can be obtained by timer switches.I believe the techonlogy has to prove itself against cheaper solutions already available. The whole thing does not seem to go beyond AMI or associated analysis of readings.It is to see whether all this increases the effeciency or really decreases it.