Careful design


Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine September/October 2009


SNOHOMISH COUNTY PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT (SNOPUD), based in Everett, Wash., is the largest of the 28 public utility districts in the state and the second-largest publicly owned utility in the Pacific Northwest. Steve Klein, general manager of SNOPUD, is leading his utility toward smart grid capabilities one careful step at a time.

''Like many utilities today, we have one foot in the past and one in the future. We are putting in place systems using enterprise architecture that is state-of-the-art and fully implemented to support smart grid,'' Klein said. ''Currently, we are … replacing our old customer information system (CIS), which would not support new applications such as real-time pricing. We're designing a fiber-optic network to support communication to our substations, as well as upgrading to solid-state electronics in our substations. Everything we are doing is moving toward an architecture to support smart grid.''

Significant business drivers are fostering the move to a smarter grid. ''The major reasons for moving to smart grid technology are to reduce system anomalies on the technical side and to provide better information to our customers. We believe this will help both the utility and the customers capture efficiencies and address the issue of capacity constraints,'' Klein said. ''Furthermore, an electric utility needs the additional system capabilities of measuring, monitoring and controlling robust two-way telecommunications, data storage, and back office systems and application programs. We must establish a common platform for all pieces of the grid, ranging from the CIS to the energy management system. Common protocols are essential to successful implementation of the component parts.''

Klein sees the transition to a smart grid as a significant departure from previous operations. ''We've had dumb systems in the past. We didn't know about outages until customers called us. Field staff had to drive around looking for problems in order to restore service. Customers could only view their patterns of energy consumption through bills arriving every two months.''

The transition to a smarter grid will incorporate a number of hardware and software initiatives. Data storage and data management issues are currently being addressed. ''It's a challenge to determine what data is valuable to store, such as use metrics employed by engineers in designing for growth. It's a challenge to get all the elements of storage in place, from CIS data to loads on distribution lines to generation output. This data must be managed for many uses, which is another major challenge. Systems must either operate on a common platform or work with protocols for accessing different systems. Data is the foundation for all of this functionality.

''The problems we encounter in the transition to smart grid architecture are similar to technical evolution in other industries. We want a system with life to it that will allow us to add applications over time, versus being forced to throw out existing hardware and software in order to add an application,'' Klein said.

''We need a common protocol for literally thousands of hardware, software and communication components,'' he said. ''There are still bumps in the road in the area of common standards, but the industry realizes what is needed, the direction where it must evolve. Vendors ahead of the curve have products available now. The first one out in a sense lays out the standard. It's that evolutionary thing again. But for a utility, being on the cutting edge implies the risk of being on the bleeding edge. Vendors coming along later may produce an enhanced product or multiple products. Protocols may be tweaked to accommodate those enhancements. Leading the pack could tie a utility to technology that is not optimal.''

Klein feels generally upbeat about IEEE and other standards associations pulling together standards. SNOPUD can relax a bit regarding critical protocol decisions, because it has the luxury of being somewhat behind the technology curve as it works to establish a platform. ''Hopefully, protocols will get sorted out in the next one to two years. Utilities in California were mandated to implement smart grid. They're already putting out advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). SNOPUD will gain an advantage by waiting,'' he said.

One example of the benefits of waiting for technology evolution comes from the efforts to adapt communication interfaces at substations. ''The early adopters had to deal with complex communication issues,'' Klein said. ''I believe communication protocols will become more solidified over the next few years. There will be more fluidity and transparency on communications platforms. An early adopter was likely working with fiber optic that went in years ago as Sonet network, using old protocols. In contrast, SNOPUD has very little fiber anywhere in our system. Our first challenge is to get fiber to our substations and to tie in that part of the network. We will accomplish that over the next two years, providing a foundational component for a smart utility system. Then we'll be ready to think about AMI and communications to the meter.''

What is Klein's vision of the future? ''That vision would include us being allowed as an industry to proceed on a reasonable time frame and investment level. We fear legislative mandates will drive economic inefficiency,'' he said. ''Some pressure helps drive technology forward, yet in the case of smart grid this is happening naturally as it is helpful with outage restoration and customer use patterns. There is so much going on right now-with renewables and the debt market-that adding pressure could result in overload. My optimistic vision is that smart grid will be allowed to evolve.''

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