Distributed energy integration is the watchword for this year’s DistribuTech conference in New Orleans, even if the number of utilities diving headlong into DERs as an integral part of their power grid are relatively few, and the move is mainly driven by necessity. 

Take Hawaiian Electric, the utility serving the country’s most solar-saturated power grids, each literally islanded from the other, and heading toward the state’s 100 percent by 2045 clean energy mandate. The utility is grappling with the integration of distributed PV, large-scale solar and wind, in-front-of and behind-the-meter batteries, electric vehicles, and other potentially disruptive technologies — and better ways to manage all of them. 

At this week’s DistribuTech, HECO announced its partner for this next-generation set of smart grid communications capabilities: Landis+Gyr. The Swiss metering giant will “provide connectivity to participating customer accounts, as well as offer grid and distributed energy resource management capabilities,” as part of the five-year, $86.3 million Phase 1 of HECO’s grid modernization plan, which is now awaiting approval from the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. 

HECO’s grid modernization plan — its roadmap for the technology it needs to deploy to support this panoply of DERs — has gone through some changes since it was first introduced in 2016. In early 2017, the Hawaii PUC rejected its first plan, which called for $340 million in spending and included smart meters deployed across its service territory. HECO returned with a leaner $205 million plan, approved by the commission last year, that called for smart meters to be deployed more “strategically,” to customers with private rooftop solar on saturated circuits, or those who want to participate in demand response or variable rate programs. 

Phase 1 calls for advanced smart meters capable of supporting the more complex data collection and communications needs of HECO’s Smart Export, Controlled Customer Grid Supply Plus, and Demand Response programs, along with a meter data management system that can perform analytics on both “scheduled and an on-demand basis” and support a customer portal for energy data access. 

It also requires an “interoperable, scalable telecommunications network, which enables the communication path for both advanced meters and field devices for distribution sensing, control and automation.” These capabilities fit well with HECO’s need for sensors and control systems on its most solar-saturated distribution circuits, which can experience extended periods of reverse power flows as PV-generated power exceeds demand — a condition most grids weren’t designed to handle. 

A different kind of AMI

This is a very different kind of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployment than the mass-market, mesh-networked systems deployed in California, Texas and other early markets in the late 2000s.

Over the past decade, Landis+Gyr and its chief AMI competitor, the combined Itron-Silver Spring Networks, have both made major advances in embedding distributed intelligence and multi-modal communications capabilities in their devices. It's part of an effort to expand beyond utilities into streetlights, traffic sensors and other internet-of-things applications.

HECO will also rely on this communications network to take on the novel task of actually controlling some behind-the-meter assets directly. Under its Controlled Customer Grid Supply Plus tariff, for example, customers must have an “acceptable telemetry interface” to allow for communication between the PV system and the utility-supplied meter, to allow the utility to curtail solar feeding onto the grid when conditions require it. Landis+Gyr’s platform, like Itron’s, can manage cellular connections for these devices if they’re separated from its mesh networks, using a single unified network management platform. 

HECO’s agreement with Landis+Gyr is also noteworthy for being among the first to be able to claim it’s built on Wi-SUN Alliance-certified equipment. While Landis+Gyr and Itron are competitors, they’ve also been working together for years — largely driven by big utility customer Tepco — on an open specification for their IEEE 802.15.4g field area mesh networks, dubbed Wi-SUN.

After years of wrangling, the alliance launched its first Wi-SUN FAN Certification Program in October, laying the groundwork for Monday’s announcement of its first wave of members to complete interoperability testing: Cisco, Itron, Nissin Systems, Kyoto University, Landis+Gyr, Renesas and Rohm. 

GTM has covered HECO's work with solar installers, smart inverter makersenergy storage providers and distribution grid power electronics providers to manage its increasing share of renewable, intermittent energy. All of these systems will require utility monitoring at the very least, and potentially a much more fine-grained level of control than utilities have ever undertaken at the edges of their distribution grids. 

"We wanted a flexible communications component that could support our current and future needs for advanced metering, distribution automation and distributed energy resource integration, while being able to support multiple vendors and protocols," Ron Cox, HECO’s senior vice president of operations, said in a statement. 

From real-time communications to integrated distribution planning 

Granular, real-time orchestration of DERs to manage the distribution grid requires more than the devices and communications networks to enable that control. It also requires a much more high-fidelity understanding of the distribution network itself, both in terms of real-time operations, and in planning how the grid should be designed for a much more DER-integrated future. 

Integrating DERs into distribution grid planning is a challenge for utilities, given the relative lack of clarity on their low-voltage systems. Utilities often have to clean up decades of data on repairs, improvements and alterations on their low-voltage systems before they can even begin the kind of power flow modeling required to enable the most sophisticated grid edge controls. 

Over the years, we’ve been tracking a handful of startups with technology to make sense of this chaotic and largely dark portion of the utility electricity distribution network. One of them is Opus One Solutions, an Ontario, Canada-based startup that’s been providing real-time, two-way power flow modeling of distribution circuits for projects including National Grid’s distributed system platform pilot in Buffalo, N.Y., and transactive microgrids in Ontario and Maine. 

At DistribuTech this week, Opus One revealed that it’s been working with HECO on a new application of its grid analytics — modeling the grid of the future. That’s the purpose of its GridOS Integrated Distribution Planning (IDP) product, a web-hosted, automated grid planning software suite that targets the entire ecosystem around distribution planning from utilities to consulting firms, system integrators and product partners, "ensuring cost-effective and reliable service to customers through advanced software applications.”

Wednesday’s commercial launch announcement highlighted the work Opus One has done with HECO to develop the IDP product. “With our enterprise, automated, and scalable web-based IDP solution, HECO was able to evaluate grid hosting capacity, power quality and investment options from operational planning to long term planning,” Opus One CEO Joshua Wong wrote in a Wednesday blog post

HECO’s island-by-island grids face a range of distribution grid planning challenges that most utilities don’t face. In 2017, HECO proposed an Integrated Grid Planning process to take on this challenge, extending the traditional utility integrated resource plan, which examines long-range needs for generation and transmission assets, into a view of the “needs at all levels of the system: customer, bulk power resources, transmission, and distribution.” 

At GTM's Grid Edge World Forum conference in 2017, Wong hinted at this week’s HECO partnership reveal, telling us that the company had landed a “large U.S. investor-owned utility” to test out its distribution planning platform. Opus One’s technology for operational insight can also help utilities in the planning sphere with “how they might use DERs for non-wires alternatives, how they could defer infrastructure expense by doing DER placement in strategic areas of their grid, and helping them to develop programs to promote DER growth where it helps the grid as well as customers," Wong said.