This week’s DistribuTECH conference in San Diego, Calif. has seen a lot of focus on the challenge of managing the rise of the utility “prosumer” -- the solar-equipped, battery-backed, EV-driving, Nest-thermostat-enabled customer who expects her energy information to be delivered with the buzz of a smartphone alert. There aren’t so many of them now -- but they’re going to bring more disruption to the utility industry in this decade than it has experienced in the last century, at least in solar-friendly states like California.

This common theme unites much of the news coming out of DistribuTECH this year, whether it’s to do with controlling voltages on distribution grid circuits, analyzing the data flowing from smart meters and grid sensors, or enlisting customers as utility partners to help restore power outages.

Taming grid voltages to manage rooftop solar

Let’s start with volt/VAR optimization (VVO) -- or more specifically, the new breed of VVO technology that uses distributed sensors and data to get a clearer picture of real-world grid conditions. Two key players in this field, Utilidata and Dominion Voltage Inc. (DVI), announced new partners and projects this week that could help put their technologies to use in managing the effects of distributed solar on the grid.

Utilidata landed a big new partner, German grid giant Siemens, which is incorporating the Providence, R.I.-based company’s grid-tied sensors and software into its advanced distribution management system (ADMS) software. As for DVI, the Richmond, Va.-based company announced new analytics and power quality features for its system that taps smart meter data to fine-tune VVO schemes.  

Both companies were also picked by Pacific Gas & Electric for a pilot project to help the utility learn how lots of rooftop solar can affect grid voltage -- and perhaps, how VVO can help solve those problems.

Rooftop solar can feed back onto grid circuits, altering voltages in ways that are hard to predict for central, model-based VVO systems. As the country’s most solar-rich utility, PG&E has a need to find out how this could affect the way it runs the grid from day to day. And, like the rest of California’s big utilities, it’s also under order from state regulators to come up with future distribution grid investment plans that take the growing share of distributed solar into account.

“We’re starting to pull voltage data today, and my goal is to pull as much as we can,” Russ Griffith, leader of PG&E’s VVO pilot, said in an interview last week. That data could provide valuable insight into just what combination of technologies it will seek to include in its new investment plans later on, he said.

Battling power outages through smartphones

Most of us take our electricity for granted -- until it disappears. When that happens, we’re usually on the phone to the utility pretty quickly to complain about it, and to ask when we can get it back. Plenty of utilities and grid vendors are now providing apps that are delivering these outage management system updates via smartphone, which allows them to pull all kinds of in-house data into the mix, including maps, automated restoration and ETAs.

But customer smartphone data could also help turn those complaint calls into sources of valuable information for utilities. That’s the approach that Advanced Control Solutions (ACS) is taking with its new GridVu software platform.

ACS has a lot of utility customers in the Southeast U.S. using its grid control software, but it’s new to the mobile connectivity space. Its first GridVu customer, an as-yet-unnamed Texas utility, actually came to ACS with the business idea after getting negative customer feedback about how it managed outages during some of the state’s recent storms, Kevin O’Hara, ACS executive vice president of sales and marketing, said in a Wednesday interview.

But solving this PR problem also led ACS to consider how it could merge the incoming data with whatever technology is being used by field crews, customer service reps and grid operators, he said. “We’re working on a mobile app that allows consumers to take a photograph of some anomaly in the system, and that will go back to the outage management system with specific information, geo-tagged” for field crews to find it and fix it as soon as possible, he said.

That, in turn, can be fed back to field crews through industry-specific mobile apps, like those that IBM and Apple just announced as part of their MobileFirst for iOS partnership. Cisco, General Electric, Schneider Electric and ABB have their own efforts underway on the mobile front.  

Turning smart meters and grid sensors into analytics engines

The term “data analytics” gets bandied about a lot at DistribuTECH, and this year’s conference was no exception, with lots of new claims on the gold mine of data being collected from smart meters, grid sensors and home area networks. But no one company is expecting to take on the entire challenge on its own.

That helps explain the raft of analytics partnerships being announced this week, as well as the focus on revamping traditionally siloed utility technology landscape for a more standards-based, interoperable future. Here’s a sampling of the news coming out of the big smart meter vendors on this front.

Smart grid communications and networking provider Trilliant announced two partnerships with startups AutoGrid and Bit Stew to bring it up to speed with competitors like Itron, Landis+Gyr and Silver Spring Networks on the analytics front.

Smart meter vendor Elster launched its Connexo data integration software platform, which collects data from multiple communications networks and standardizes it for use by any number of new analytics applications. Like many of the analytics engines on offer, Elster is packaging it as a cloud-based platform as well as an upgrade for existing customers, with the ability to capture data before it enters utility back-office systems for faster response time.

Silver Spring Networks announced new partners and apps for its SilverLink Sensor Network platform, meant to collect and deliver data from smart meters, grid sensors, networked streetlights and other endpoints at speeds much faster than the 15-minute to hourly interval reads common for most smart meter networks. It also named three new utility customers, including its first international deployment with Hongkong Electric Company, as well as long-time customers Florida Power & Light and Pepco.