SMART GRID GURUS: Corey Knutsen

Seattle City Light strategic planning director welcomes challenge

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine March/April 2010

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WHEN COREY KNUTSEN JOINED SEATTLE City Light (SCL) in March 2008, he was tasked to develop a plan for taking an aged infrastructure, mostly mid-'70s electromechanical, and bring it into the 21st century with features representing the best in today's smart grid technology. He welcomed the challenge, something for which he feels his 35-year career in electrical engineering, resource evaluation, business operations and technology planning has well prepared him to face.

''Each utility distribution infrastructure is in a slightly different stage of underfunding and that's a helpful thing to know as you approach the smart grid. One needs to understand the general functions for operating the distribution system and then what technology can do. As an example, here we have a lot of trees and they are the principal source of outages. If you don't have smart meters, distribution automation, or sensing equipment, you have to wait for the customer to call and say they are out of power. Then you have to send trucks to find what caused the outage. That's an operational inefficiency that technology can solve,'' Knutsen said.

''To understand the value of that, I think it's helpful to have spent a lot of time in the utility industry,'' he said. ''My entire career has been in planning, helping my colleagues set priorities and step through the process of what's the most important thing for us to do next with the limited resources we always have.''

Improving technology + energy strategy

A native of Washington state, Knutsen was drawn to math at an early age and became interested in engineering and technology. He joined the Air Force, attended electronics school and later taught there. At the University of Washington, he earned a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and a master's degree in Business Administration.

He was recruited by SCL from his eight-year job as executive director of the Center for Information Services for Washington State's Community and Technical Colleges. There he worked with a board of college presidents to improve technology throughout the system. Knutsen's range of career experience encompasses the direction of business operations, planning and research, with positions at AT&T 

Broadband, Puget Sound Energy and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, managed by Batelle. He also served on the governor's task force for regulatory reform and the governor's state energy strategy committee.

SCL supplies electricity for approximately 400,000 customers and is governed by the city council and mayor. Ninety percent of generation is hydro with 45 percent city-owned and 55 percent under contracts with the Bonneville Power Administration and others. The rest comes from thermal, wind, other renewables and energy conservation. SCL has the distinction of being carbon neutral since 2005 and is proud of its pioneering energy conservation programs, which are well accepted in an environmentally sensitive community.

Ready to make the leap

Last year, Knutsen led the utility though intensive smart grid planning to apply for a grant under the stimulus program, but SCL was, ultimately, not selected by the U.S. Department of Energy. The plan included deploying smart meters, two-way communications with customers, automating substations and much of the distribution system. ''We have a year's work where we have sharpened the focus on what would make sense for this utility. Now we are ready to have a cogent conversation with our governance and with our community to say this is what we think makes sense for us to do as a community,'' he said.

Knutsen thinks his organization is ready to make the leap. ''It's a unique opportunity to avoid multiple steps and come in with a fresh, state-of-the-art smart grid system with uniform security protocols,'' he said. ''While it's a negative that it is an old system, it is a positive to work with a clean slate and use the best technology.''

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