There is a lot of talk about the potential for data to revolutionize how utilities do business, similar to the way that data analytics have transformed various other industries.

Yet the examples are still few and far between. There are increasing investments in FLISRMDM systems, volt/VAR optimization and a bunch of other utility acronyms, but few utilities have the money and resources to truly build the applications that will overhaul how they do business every day.

Toronto Hydro is one example of a utility that is pushing the envelope, especially in the area of using data analytics to make and prove business cases for infrastructure upgrades. Toronto Hydro is also on the forefront of transforming its relationship with customers, with a heavy focus on education and interaction.

On the asset side, the team at Toronto Hydro has been designing products for the past few years that help not only monitor the grid, but also run the business better. “The expectation is no more luxury of overspending and overbuilding,” said Ivano Labricciosa, vice president of asset management at Toronto Hydro. “That requires a level of precision that data will allow you, as long as you have the analytical tools.”

Toronto Hydro, which serves about 700,000 customers, went shopping around for those tools about four or five years ago, but didn’t find quite it was looking for. “We wanted tools that fit our thinking rather than having our thinking fit our tool,” said Labricciosa.

Eventually, the utility knows that it will probably turn to the vendor community for solutions, but even today there are often suites of applications out of which Toronto might only want to use a few applications, but would have to pay for the entire solution.

One of the products it developed in-house is a transformer monitor, which essentially connects Elster meters to its transformers. Currently, there are about 5,000 transformer monitors out of 60,000 total transformers. They are primarily focused on changing communities that are seeing new housing, more businesses or other load increases.

The business case for the monitors was around load management and managing transformers. Instead of running transformers until they fail, now they can monitor the transformers for better planning. For instance, a transformer may be overloading on hot summer days even more than previously thought, shortening the overall life span of the transformer.

Also, instead of waiting for a catastrophic failure, Toronto Hydro can now plan for an upgrade, which means about an hour outage versus an average six-hour outage after an unexpected failure. Toronto Hydro engineers found that when the transformers were overloading in summer, they were aging at twice the speed the engineers expected.

“We’re finding the damn things are getting overloaded even with the overbuild,” said Labricciosa. In the summer of 2011, the utility found twelve transformers that were on the brink of collapse, which were upgraded to alleviate overloading. That work saved approximately 100,000 outage minutes (more than 1,600 hours).

There have also been other added benefits that weren’t put into the business case. The transformer monitoring has allowed Toronto Hydro to cut down on theft. Unlike some other utilities, theft is not a huge issue; there is about 3 percent loss from both technical and non-technical (read: stealing) issues. But found money is still found money, and Toronto Hydro has been able to recover significant funds.

Another in-house product is a powerline monitor. Toronto Hydro is hardly the first utility to use a powerline monitor, but it is using analytics to be able to tell the signature of certain issues, such as tree contact or animal contact. There are currently seven devices on two feeders. The unique signatures allow Toronto Hydro to inform tree trimming work or help linesmen know what they’re looking for when they head out into the field. The devices on the two feeders have the potential to save more than 9,000 outage hours, according to the utility. 

Other innovations at Toronto Hydro involve expanding one vendor’s product further on the grid. The utility is using S&C’s IntelliTeam products for automatic restoration. (EPB Chattanooga also has a large deployment of S&C IntelliRupter switches).  But not all of the breakers and switches on the lines are S&C products, so Labricciosa’s team is piloting an intelligent interface module that allows S&C’s technology to communicate with other switches. “It’s the integration piece that most utilities struggle with,” he said, since many products don’t work as seamlessly with other brands as advertised.

Even with the technology as is, the utility already had one outage that affected more than 4,400 customers. But the fault was isolated in less than a minute and power was back on; only a single customer was affected for the three hours while power was restored. 

Although Toronto Hydro is aggressively developing analytical software to meet its needs, most of the products still don’t work in real time. He said the majority of the data is pulled back and then pushed through a feeder investment model, so that assets can be categorized and then evaluated to determine which upgrades make the most sense given the amount of money available and risk factors.

The data doesn’t just stay with IT, but instead is shared across decision-makers. “From the COO to the CFO, we all agree that no one owns smart grid,” said Labricciosa. The collaboration starts from the top levels, but continues through all sectors of the operations and information departments. Not only does the utility share the data internally, but Labricciosa also said he’d be happy to share the software with other utilities, although there are no plans to commercialize the products.

Some of the data is already a part of Toronto Hydro’s current rate case, where regulators are weighing whether they can accept the data. The utility has hired five external consultants to verify different parts of the data and algorithms, but it is still up for debate whether the regulators will accept it. It’s the price Toronto Hydro is paying for paving the way.

“The regulators believe the data, but they want to know who else is doing this,” said Labricciosa. “We’re trying to provide them with the best information. But it’s not the answer they want to hear. What they want to hear is whether ConEd or ComEd is getting the same data and whether everyone is using it.”

Although Toronto Hydro is going it alone for now, there are increasingly more tools available on the market, and Labricciosa knows that eventually he’ll ditch some (or all) of the homemade tools and shop around. “I’m not a software firm,” admitted Labricciosa, “but where we ended up is that we have built some very elaborate tools.”