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Exchange 2021 Day 3: Momentum for the Future

5/14/21 9:17 PM

They say hindsight is 2020… most of us are relieved to have the year 2020 behind us. In Thursday’s opening general session, “Reflections on 2020: Leading Through Change,” Gina Garner, vice president of commercial operations, Landis+Gyr Americas, hosted a panel of three utility executives as they reflected on the silver linings from the past year. Panelists included Booga Gilbertson, senior VP and chief operations officer for Puget Sound Energy, Cynthia Garcia, VP of energy delivery for Tucson Electric Power, and Tom Pierpoint, VP of electric systems engineering and technical services for Austin Energy.

Communication surfaced as a crucial success factor for navigating the pandemic, panelists agreed. When COVID-19 hit, Gilbertson recalls that her utility immediately activated its business continuity emergency plans: “The community quickly plugged in – business leaders, medical leaders, government officials – to coordinate as a region.”

“Austin Energy had up to 125 people on daily calls, and that helped us disseminate information through the organization as well as keep folks engaged,” Pierpoint said. “The speed of communication was key, not only with our employees but also with our contractors so that we could keep everybody moving in the same direction,” Garcia added.

What COVID-induced changes are here to stay? Along with continuing remote work, which all panel members mentioned, Garcia said paperless processes for engineering and design groups are keepers. Also here to stay are remote inspections whenever possible.

Gilbertson said her utility discovered a better way to manage service restoration. “To avoid congregating, we went to many dispersed staging areas [after storms],” she said. “It turned out that we needed fewer resources and could get power restored faster.”

“One of the things that helped us greatly was our Landis+Gyr AMI that gave us nearly real-time reports on load by customer category,” Pierpoint said. Given the shift to home-based work and reduced industrial activities, this helped the utility track load changes and impacts on financials.

The Right Interconnections

Just as communication was vital in managing the pandemic, it’s crucial to grid modernization, and it was covered in a breakout session, “Interoperability Enabling the Clean Energy Future.” Landis+Gyr Product Management Director, Jeff Scheb explained, “What we mean by interoperability is the ability for different devices to coexist and communicate with each other on a common network.”

“One of the fundamental challenges we're seeing today is the majority of networks out there are proprietary,” said Abhijit Grewal, director of marketing for the smart cities business at Silicon Labs. He said if he was building a street light controller and wanted to get on a network owned by a particular vendor, the only way forward would be an investment in licensing or a network interface. “That is never a cost-optimized solution.”

To combat this issue, Gary Stuebing, chief standards manager at Cisco, endorsed Wi-SUN standards, as did the others on the panel. His reasoning – shared panel-wide – is that common standards open technology to more rapid innovations and application development. As an example, he pointed to Wi-Fi. “Everybody’s using Wi-Fi for everything,” he said. In addition, he added, “A common networking infrastructure is more scalable.”

The panelists encouraged utility staffers to get involved in standards-development bodies. “Vendors will provide what utilities demand,” said Scheb.

As to why interoperability is so important, Scheb summarizes this easily, “Perhaps the most ubiquitous standard today we talk about in Wi-SUN is the internet. Would you say the internet has hampered innovation or has it provided a common platform enabling all kinds of innovators, large and small, to add value in ways no one had imagined. That’s what the possibility for interoperability and standards across industrial IoT applications is as well.” 

Benefits Come to Light

Another afternoon session on day three of Exchange examined how smart street lights are helping three utilities. Rachel King, supervisor of street lighting account management at Puget Sound Energy (PSE) started off the breakout session titled, “Bright Ideas for Smart Street Light Controls.”

King said her utility was seeing value in three main areas: advanced asset management, optimized maintenance, and the customer experience. On the asset management side, street light controls allow utilities to levelize lumen output and thereby prolong the total burn time of the lamp. When it comes to maintenance, two-way communication with the light itself can help crews respond more quickly to issues.

“Today, when a crew rolls out to a street lighting issue, they may not have the appropriate materials on their truck to resolve that problem,” King said. The utility’s new system sends real-time notification of issues, so PSE can respond with the right equipment quickly, reducing truck rolls and customer calls. Plus, the smart sensors deliver billing reads, which means the utility can bill customers for actual energy used, rather than estimates.

Stephen Crume, joint use and street light engineering manager for Seattle City Light, sees similar benefits, and he pointed out two other benefits his organization has seen with smart lighting. One is improving service inequities in immigrant communities and communities of color.

“The affluent and connected communities are quick to report issues,” he said, but the city’s large immigrant population may not be heard. Some may be reluctant to call a government agency like Crume’s utility, some may lack internet access, and some face language barriers. Crume sees streetlight controllers as a step toward greater social equity.

The controllers also cut down on truck rolls from ad hoc requests, such as film crews asking for lights to be turned off or the time a community wanted lights off to accommodate a nighttime holiday parade.

Smart street light controls serve a very different purpose in Huntsville, Ala., where Huntsville Utilities is using them as grid sensors. It started as an approach to leverage the utility’s Gridstream® Connect platform for advanced metering and get rid of a second AMI communications network that had been used only for bellwether meters that tracked voltage.

Troy Jolly, crew leader and field network technician for the utility, had the idea of turning street light controllers into DNP-enabled sensors that could talk directly to the utility SCADA system. After Landis+Gyr did this, “We eliminated tower site maintenance, recurring payments and operating costs of the other AMS,” Jolly said.

He added, “We didn’t expect early adoption from the engineering team. They asked us to deploy a few of these to monitor low-voltage trouble spots.”

As with all things AMI, Jolly and his co-presenters found additional benefits from their smart lighting applications. That’s why conferences like Exchange exist: to help utility professionals learn from each other.

Day 3 concluded with a live Q&A session where Jennifer Edwards, director, marketing communications, and Jay Lasseter, VP Industry + Growth awarded prizes to attendees and announced the location for next year’s Exchange event. We hope you will join us in person in Orlando, May 16-19, 2022. Missed some of the action of the conference? Check out highlights from Day 1 and Day 2.

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