Utilities on the forefront of smart grid deployments may have smart meters, distribution automation and demand response well in hand. But they’re still striving to figure out how to put the capabilities -- and the massive amounts of data -- these systems provide to more effective use.

At The Soft Grid 2012 conference this week in San Francisco, executives at four utilities -- San Diego Gas & Electric, Seattle City Light, Arizona Public Service (APS) and Chattanooga’s EPB -- got on stage to explain just what they’re doing with their smart grid today, what’s next on their roadmap, and what they’re looking for the smart grid industry to provide.

These four utilities are at various stages of development on their smart grid plans, and not all of them are working on the same things. For example, Seattle City Light has foregone deploying smart meters, while APS, EPB and SDG&E have gone full-bore into AMI.

But some common themes emerged in the discussion. In particular, renewable energy sources like wind and solar, with their intermittent and sometimes hard-to-predict power flows, are a key focus for both solar-rich SDG&E and APS and wind-rich Seattle City Light. And all four utilities are facing the challenge of recruiting top-shelf technicians and engineers to manage the high-tech systems they’re deploying.

Let’s break the discussion down by individual utility, to see where each of them has been in their smart grid journey, where they find themselves today, and where they’re going:

-  Tony Tewelis, director of technology innovation at APS, noted that his utility has been using smart meters longer than most: it started deploying its AMI network in 2006. APS now collects nearly 20 million pieces of data per day, and uses the network for remote disconnect and operational “pinging,” or testing functionality, he said. Outage detection is next on its AMI roadmap, he said.

APS has also been taking advantage of that smart meter data, building tools to check transformer loading to see which transformers are being over-stressed and might need replacing, or monitoring feeder lines that serve lots of solar-powered customers to keep track of the variable power flows that result. To get there, the utility has been connecting its meter data management system with its customer information system (CIS)  and geographic information system (GIS).

- Josh Gerber, SDG&E’s lead architect for smart grid, has helped oversee the utility’s rollout of nearly 2.2 million electric and gas smart meters over the past few years. Over the summer, the utility started on a project to integrate that AMI data into a region-wide geospatial outage and distribution management system, which also incorporates the condition-based substation management gear it’s had in place for several years now, he said.

SDG&E is also a leader in weather analytics, with one of the largest weather networks in the country to cover its 4,000 square-mile territory, he said. That’s going to help in its goal to manage the massive amount of renewable energy -- solar, mainly, but also wind -- that it and other California utilities have pledged to grow to 33 percent of their overall generation by 2020, under the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

Even so, Gerber said that one of SDG&E’s top items on its wish list to the smart grid industry is “a highly reliable, predictive forecasting of renewable output,” to help it meet its goals without putting the grid out of balance. He was echoed on this point by APS’ Tewelis, who added that utilities with lots of distributed solar need more tools to measure and manage voltage and reactive power on distribution feeder lines.

- David Wade, COO and executive vice president at Chattanooga municipal utility EPB, has an unusual smart grid communications backbone to work with. The 170,000-customer utility installed fiber-optic lines throughout its service territory, allowing it to maintain high-speed, high-bandwidth connections to its customers’ smart meters.

EPB has also used its fiber backbone to connect some fast-acting distribution automation systems from S&C Electric Co. that have proven quite effective in restoring power after recent storms, he said. Next steps for the utility include working with Alcatel’s Bell Labs and other partners to use its grid data to create real-time models of how the grid is operating, he said.

EPB buys all of its power from the federal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), so it has focused on the demand side of the power equation -- that is, its customers -- in terms of finding ways to use them as a resource for grid stability, he added.

- Michael Pesin, chief technology advisor at Seattle City Light, represents the only utility on the panel that hasn’t deployed smart meters yet. The utility issued an RFP for an AMI system about three years ago, but couldn’t prove a positive business case, he said. After all, with more than 90 percent of its power coming from the Bonneville Power Administration’s massive hydropower resources, it enjoys some of the lowest power prices in the country, he noted.

Still, the municipal utility has been moving forward on other projects, including automatic fault restoration systems on a feeder-by-feeder basis, he said. In the meantime, it’s planning outage management, GIS and workforce mobile connectivity systems, he said. It has also proposed a conservation voltage reduction (CVR) project using a system developed by Virginia-based utility Dominion Power and partner Lockheed Martin, in which BPA would pay about 75 percent of the costs, he said (though he added that this project was still on the drawing boards).

In the meantime, “we need to find a solution to enable integration of a larger percentage of wind power in our portfolio, by somehow balancing load with generation,” he said. To get there, Seattle City Light is working with a startup called Logios, which can combine real-time monitoring of wind power’s ups and downs with real-time management of customer power use, he said. We’re seeing more and more interest in this idea of real-time demand response to balance renewable power -- stay tuned for more on this topic in the days and weeks to come.