Distinctive road map

Allegheny Power is building an advanced utility infrastructure

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine May/June 2010

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WEST VIRGINIA HAS STAKED A CLAIM AS THE FIRST STATE  in the nation to have what is being depicted as a legitimate statewide smart grid plan in place and is moving toward implementation.

And while other states may argue West Virginia's status of being first, there's no missing the indications that both Appalachian Power-a unit of American Electric Power-and Allegheny Power, the West Virginia electric-delivery arm of Allegheny Energy, are striving for substantial headway in their West Virginia smart grid plans and initiatives.

Plan is guiding road map

Harley Mayfield, an Allegheny Power distribution engineer working out of Morgantown, W.Va.-who has been deeply involved in Allegheny smart grid strategy and progress over the past several years-figuratively overflows with information about Allegheny's West Virginia smart grid approach.

''We're using the West Virginia Smart Grid Implementation Plan as a road map to help guide our decisions,'' said Mayfield. ''The Implementation Plan was developed as a very aggressive five-year deployment plan. But I don't think either company [Allegheny or Appalachian] feels it's reasonable to try to do it in five years because of the massive funding it would require.''

Allegheny and Appalachian are nonetheless hitting the accelerator with their West Virginia smart grid efforts.

Dollars versus societal benefits

''The Implementation Plan is based on a business model of recovering costs,'' said Mayfield. ''And it also relies heavily on the benefits to the consumer, benefits to the public in general and societal benefits. Traditionally, the state public service commission will say to the utility, 'OK, what's it going to cost you? And what's the benefit to the company? How much money is it going to save you?' Or, 'How much money is it going to make you?'

''In this case, just the straight dollars and cents don't justify the expense. But when you start trying to assign dollar amounts to how society benefits from it, then it makes it a winner from that standpoint.''

The West Virginia Implementation Plan sets far-reaching goals within a timeframe that will evolve into more realistic estimates of progress at given budgets over specified periods.

''We realized we needed to look at it from our viewpoint-a more specific look than the Implementation Plan took,'' Mayfield said. ''So I'm now working with a small group within our company that's developing Allegheny's road map. We've finished our initial determination of where we are and where we would like to be.

''Now, some of the differences revolve around how quickly do you make the expenditures? And I think our Allegheny Power president [Paul Evanson] mentioned the phrase 'spending at the speed of value'-meaning what is it going to do for the customers? What's it going to do for the company? What's it going to do for the stockholders?''

Allegheny's AUI road map

The epicenter of some of Allegheny's smart grid pilot projects is a Morgantown facility called Research Ridge, actually a commercial/ industrial-park property owned and operated by energy-consulting firm Augusta Systems. 

And Augusta, in collaboration with Allegheny, is working on what is defined as a version of smart grid that goes beyond AMR, beyond AMI-to a concept the two companies label AUI: advanced utility infrastructure.

''AUI is something we wanted to try to capture as a utility,'' Mayfield said. ''Of course, we feel that AMI-the advanced metering infrastructure-is a component part of the smart grid. It's not the whole smart grid, but it is an important part.

''So we did some early research. What we were originally trying to show at the Research Ridge facility was the concept that we could purchase meters from multiple vendors, and use all those meters to directly communicate with an Allegheny Power-owned and -installed communication system.''

Competition has multiple benefits

It's largely a matter of establishing a competitive basis among various vendors- thus to reduce costs as the vendors compete for business.

''In a typical AMI deployment, you would purchase a system from Company X-and Company X, because of the way the system goes together, only its meter will work,'' said Mayfield. ''So if you buy one company's system, you wouldn't be able to put in another company's meter because the meter wouldn't work with that system.

''And that could bring up an even bigger logistics problem: What do you do if something happens to that company whose system you bought?''

Obviously, competition is intended to not only expand choices, but also hold every vendor accountable.

''We wanted to show that you could put Meter A beside Meter B beside Meter C-and still work,'' Mayfield said. ''I think we demonstrated that. And I think industrywide that concept has become more important.''

Allegheny's West Virginia ambition is having significant impact as the company further advances its smart grid initiatives. 

''We're continuing to propose a series of pilot projects,'' said Mayfield. ''We want to test different technologies and different software manufacturers to see how we can best integrate the different component parts of the smart grid into something that works specifically for Allegheny Power.''

Technology + geography = unique solutions

Coincidentally, Mayfield notes that Allegheny is keenly aware that specific strategies must accommodate the unique aspects of energy delivery in West Virginia.

''One of the hazards we have to keep in mind with the smart grid is that what works someplace else won't necessarily work here,'' Mayfield said. ''Look at California, for example, where you have customer densities in the hundreds to thousands per square mile.

''That same type of implementation is simply not going to work in West Virginia, where we have customer densities in the 10- to 15-customer range per square mile.

''Also, the same technologies that work in the Midwest-where it's flat as a tabletop-will not work in West Virginia, where you have elevation changes of hundreds of feet in less than a quarter of a mile.''

Design differences yield different approaches.

''The major circuits in some companies' systems are all interconnected, and you can parallel one with another pretty much as you want. They're designed with that capability,'' said Mayfield. ''So if they want to transfer a load, they just push a switch, and their system is strong enough that they can transfer complete circuits and not have a problem.

''With Allegheny's system-in which the circuits are not designed to be parallel-we need to look at what's the existing load? And what's going to happen to the voltage? And we're going to have to design the system differently than those others.''

Customer acceptance crucial

Although West Virginia has yet to establish a dynamic-pricing infrastructure, Allegheny is fully aware that if dynamic pricing is eventually implemented, the relative level of customer acceptance is critical.

''We joke about some things here,'' said Mayfield. ''But when we start talking about an electric system that requires agreeing to give someone else control of your electricity usage, which there are automated systems out there-you know, West Virginia's state motto is, 'A mountaineer is always free.'

''So you find they don't really like to give someone else control of their house. Now, when you talk about broader smart grid concepts, people realize this is something that could be important. But they're also worried about the cost.''

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