This year’s DistribuTech conference in San Diego has been its usual whirlwind of press releases and presentations on the latest grid edge developments. Here’s what we’ve been learning on the ground so far.
First, we’ve got the annual iteration of expanded distributed intelligence and “internet of things” offerings from the vendors of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). Over the past few years, companies such as Itron, Silver Spring Networks, Landis+Gyr, Sensus and recent Honeywell acquisition Elster have been adding more computing power and networking capability to their smart meters, and using the same technology as springboards to smart streetlights, grid sensors, behind-the-meter energy assets and other devices.
Itron’s contributions to this year’s progress report included a new AMI contract with the Public Service Company of New Mexico, and a new “smart energy community” project in Ithaca, New York with Avangrid, involving some 12,400 electric and 7,300 gas meters. It’s part of the utility’s work to get up to speed as a distributed system platform (DSP) provider under the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative, and will deliver “real-time analysis of data and peer-to-peer communication among intelligent devices at the edge of the network.”
Itron has also launched its first AMI analytics software platform that’s built to run using data from meters besides its own. Last week, Itron’s Idea Labs, an incubator of sorts within the company, announced its Grid Connectivity modeling service, designed to tap smart meter data to determine where meters have been connected to the wrong transformers, or reconnected in ways that disrupt phase balancing across distribution circuits.
Finding these problems today is a very labor-intensive effort, and combing out the problems from the data is much more cost-effective, said Roberto Aiello, managing director of Itron’s Idea Labs, in a Tuesday interview at DistribuTech. But it's still a process.
“Last year, we had several pilots with several utilities, and got enough data to get better and better -- and now we’re good enough to ship it as a product. And the more we ship it, the better it works, because the more data we have to train it,” he said.
And because the new modeling service is built to work with standardized formats for key energy data, Itron can also offer it to utilities that don’t use its meters, including one it’s already working with, said Aiello. “The input to our algorithm is the voltage data -- as long as the voltage is collected, it doesn’t have to be collected from our systems.” By the end of 2017, Itron’s goal is “to have utilities that are our customers, and not our customers, that can benefit from this product.”
The expanding AMI platform
Itron is also expanding its roster of applications partners for its OpenWay Riva edge-of-grid intelligence platform, which we’ve written about extensively. The latest update is a new Itron apps webpage -- although no third-party apps are on it yet -- and a new partnership with BSquare to manage licensing and revenue sharing for third-party apps once they make their way onto utility-owned Itron networks.
Competitor Silver Spring’s latest contributions on this front include a big smart streetlight rollout with existing utility partner Oklahoma Gas & Electric, updates on its smart campus development with IOT partner Ameresco, and progress on citywide IOT networks in U.K. cities, such as Bristol and Glasgow.
“We see utilities really getting into the transition to becoming service providers,” Brandon De Vito, Silver Spring’s vice president of smart cities and smart lighting, said in an interview. “Then, Ameresco, which is the biggest independent energy services company in North America, helps us work with more cities and regional entities in smart city activities. Ameresco has a lot of experience in water and is interested in the whole cycle of streetlighting and water and waste.”
Silver Spring also announced new statistics from distribution automation (DA) deployments with utility customers, such as Baltimore Gas & Electric, Commonwealth Edison, Florida Power & Light, and Brazil’s CPFL Energia. The company also named new DA partners including sensor and communications module makers Incon and V2Com, distribution grid power electronics from Varentec and “bird on a wire” sensors from long-time partner Sentient Energy.
Sentient Energy fills the gap in grid data
Landis+Gyr also announced this week it is working with Sentient to extend the edge computing capabilities of its grid sensors, by inserting L+G IPv6-enabled network nodes inside Sentient’s power line monitors. Burlingame, Calif.-based Sentient has been on a bit of a tear lately, with about 35,000 sensor units shipped as of the end of this quarter, Michael Bauer, the company’s founder and president, said Tuesday at DistribuTech.
That success has been mostly with four or five large marquee customers, including Florida Power & Light, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric. Two of the three utilities listed are with Sentient's long-time partner Silver Spring -- and a few more as-yet-unnamed top-tier U.S. utilities, Bauer said. At the same time, new partner Landis+Gyr is introducing Sentient's sensors in Europe, even though it bought its own line sensoring company, PowerSense, back in 2014.
That may be because Sentient’s products have proven themselves in field trials to be not only accurate, but also reliable, Bauer said. The company’s MM3 units -- boxes that clip onto power feeders and use the current to run their sensors and communications -- have survived real-world fault events that have fried competitors’ devices, or blown them completely off the wire, he said.
This week saw Sentient unveil a new set of devices, including a Zero-Amp Monitor unit for feeder laterals. It’s not really zero power, but requires a lot less amperage to keep its circuits and radios humming, Bauer explained, while providing the same 130 samples-per-cycle data collection capabilities as its existing devices.
It’s also releasing a voltage-sensing-capable device, and others specifically built for vaults and switch cabinets, where Sentient’s boxes have to keep running even if they’re submerged during a flood, he said. And not to be left out of the software-as-a-service game, it’s also releasing a disturbance analytics package to help find signals that indicate when a line or transformer is about to fail, not just when it has failed, he said.
“We believe that we are like the grid information company, and we believe that’s the critical new ingredient in the grid transformation we’re all going through,” he said. While smart meters can deliver reliable endpoint grid data, and substations are well-monitored already, there’s a wide swath of the grid that’s largely uncovered, which represents "6 million miles in North America alone," according to Bauer.
Survalent and Spirae: DERMS for the rest of us
On the distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) front, we’ve been covering the action from DistribuTech this week from grid giants like ABB, Siemens and General Electric. On Tuesday, mid-size SCADA player Survalent added its own DERMS partnership to the list with Fort Collins, Colo.-based Spirae.
The two companies announced Tuesday that they’ll merge Survalent’s ADMS platform with Spirae’s Wave DERMS solution “to enable utilities to efficiently and reliably leverage DERs within their networks.” "DERs" stands for distributed energy resources, which can mean anything from out-of-control inputs like rooftop solar or customer load, or in-control assets like energy storage or demand response.
Survalent tends to have smaller utility customers than its big competitors such as Siemens and GE, but it has a lot of them -- more than 500 in 30 countries over its 50-year history -- and a good share of municipal utilities and electric cooperatives. That could put it in a position to offer a DERMS platform at a lower price point than those being set in big DERMS RFPs in states like California, Hawaii and New York.
Spirae, for its part, has been doing this kind of integration work for a diverse set of customers since its 2002 founding, including utility pilot projects in Colorado and Denmark, microgrids for the U.S. Navy, billionaire Richard Branson’s Caribbean island, its hometown municipal utility, and more recently, larger utilities such as San Diego Gas & Electric.
A merger of distributed energy and grid edge advocates
Finally, all of this grid edge technology will have to have its own education and research arm. On Tuesday, two such groups -- SEPA and SGIP -- have formed that combined entity.
SEPA, which changed its name from the Solar Electric Power Alliance to the Smart Electric Power Alliance last year, to underscore its commitment to broader distributed energy issues, has the policy and research heft that befits one of the country’s two key solar industry groups.
The Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP), meanwhile, was formed in 2007 to manage federal oversight of standards development for the smart grid, and played a key role in designing the terms of the Department of Energy’s $5 billion in smart grid stimulus grants. In 2013, it transitioned to nonprofit status, and has since led the development of everything from Green Button and Orange Button data standards to Open Field Message Bus.