Pacific Gas & Electric

No. 2 utility builds foundation for the future

Published In: Intelligent Utility March / April 2012

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PACIFIC GAS & ELECTRIC (PG&E) CONTINUES TO CLIMB THE UTILIQ ladder. Garnering a fourth place finish in 2009 and third place in 2010, PG&E has finally grabbed a silver spot in the 2011 UtiliQ rankings right behind fellow California utility San Diego Gas & Electric.

Incorporated in California in 1905, PG&E is one of the largest combination natural gas and electric utilities in the U.S. Based in San Francisco with 20,000 employees, the company provides natural gas and electric service to approximately 15 million people throughout a 70,000-square-mile service area in northern and central California from Eureka to Bakersfield and from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevadas.

Employee passion resonates
According to company culture and Kevin Dasso, PG&E's senior director of technology and information strategy, what sets PG&E apart is the people-employees with a passion for the company and for serving residential and business customers.

Dasso pointed to efforts to collaborate on, research and develop Green Button as one example of that employee passion. Green Button is a consumer-focused push that allows customers to download energy use in a standard format that can be shared with energy service providers.

"Green Button was the culmination of three years of work by folks in IT and customer care, allowing us to be one of the first deployments of the open automated data exchange (Open ADE) standard. Our team was able to leverage smart grid work and turn that into something very useful for customers that the whole team is very proud of," Dasso said.

Crafting a cornerstone
In fact, those passionate people help in a number of company initiatives, including projects aimed at shoring up system reliability, such as the Cornerstone Improvement Program.

The Cornerstone Improvement Program began in the summer of 2010 to increase grid flexibility, mitigate outages and lay a smart grid foundation. In urban areas, the project involves installing new substation transformers, equipment and feeders as well as updating several overhead and underground conductors and investing in smart automation. In rural areas, it also involves the installation of reclosers and fuses.

Cornerstone is moving into full-scale construction this year, according to Dasso. Last year was all about testing, verification and building the infrastructure, but 2012 is all about in-depth construction of circuits, performing upgrades and adding automation technology. Bakersfield is the first focus, with the installation of a core telecommunications structure and the retrofitting of certain circuits. By the end of 2012, 150 circuits will be automated; the goal of 400 automated circuits should be reached by the end of 2013.

One of the Cornerstone pilot installations had an outage last year on a circuit that serves 2,200 customers. The system automatically detected the event (a fallen tree branch), isolated the problem and restored service to 1,800 customers in the unaffected portion of the circuit in less than five minutes.

From corner to end-point
Dasso labels both the Cornerstone program and PG&E's smart meter deployment as "foundational," ones providing direct benefits to customers in areas such as reliability. And both will provide additional benefits in the future in terms of technology, data and how those items are used within the system.

In fact, Dasso expects that PG&E will leverage the telecommunications network built for the smart meter deployment to put more sensors out onto the grid in the future.

In the here and now, that smart meter deployment is right on track, with 9 million meters installed so far and the plan to finish by this summer with more than 10 million. The smart meter program is moving from conceptual to reality for Dasso, who has seen the beginnings used to support programs like outage management.

Coming into the 2011/2012 storm season in California (which picks up in late fall and early winter), the utility utilized smart meters in the restoration process. Rather than the more traditional truck rolls to investigate suspected outages, the utility could ping meters from the office, checking to see if there were issues and avoiding sending critical resources on a wild goose chase for phantom problems. The system improved restoration times by focusing on real outages-and all this was possible with only a fraction of those smart meters in place.

High wire intelligence
While distribution automation and advanced meters may be the foundation of the PG&E smart grid program, the company is also working to transform its transmission network by participating in a synchrophasor installation project with a number of other western U.S. utilities under the advisement of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC). All of these items, fundamentally, help with system reliability.

In 2011, PG&E built a proof-of-concept lab to simulate synchrophasor use in the field, right down to details on how it would look and how the system would respond. At the end of 2011, the utility moved into a construction phase. To move forward, the utility must beef up the telecommunications network to support the timing of synchrophasor data streams.

"We've begun installing the measurement devices and data collection systems, some key system components," Dasso said. "And we're starting to receive devices from our supplier partners. The phasor measurement units are coming in now. So we've moved from simulating to building infrastructure with this project."

Foundation for the future
Dasso sees Green Button and the company's smart meter deployment as two of the utility's highlights of 2011. The third was PG&E's filing of its smart grid deployment plan. Dasso labeled that act a "significant accomplishment and milestone" for PG&E.

"The plan allows us to think about what's important about smart grid," Dasso said. "It allows us to focus our efforts and communicate."

Noting that the plan helped "crystallize" the smart grid concept for PG&E, Dasso reiterated that the smart grid to PG&E is "a means to an end," with the end being a focus on "providing safe, reliable and affordable service" to customers. PG&E sees the smart grid as a way to advance that core mission.

To do so, PG&E has put into place a disciplined approach to smart grid technology implementation, with a focus on building a foundation for the future. According to Dasso, PG&E's greatest differentiator is its careful, thoughtful approach to crafting a future-focused energy company. PG&E will make sure the technology that's cool and hip today also works efficiently and practically for tomorrow.

 

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