From heat waves and thunderstorms to worker lockouts and emergency nuclear plant shutdowns, the summer of 2012 is shaping up to be a tough one for U.S. utilities. That, in turn, could give new smart grid deployments a chance to prove whether or not they’re up to the task of beating the heat.
Take demand response -- the business of turning down power use at big industrial and commercial sites, as well as across hundreds of thousands of homes, to keep the grid in balance during peak demand times. The past two weeks have seen record-high temperatures in an ongoing East Coast heat wave, putting major pressure on grid operators to keep peaks in check.
Demand response provider EnerNOC tapped about 1,000 megawatts of demand response last week. While that didn’t break its record of 1,250 megawatts turned down in July 2011, EnerNOC did tap a record number of load-shedding programs last week, with new programs in Pennsylvania and elsewhere contributing demand reduction for the first time alongside long-running programs with the likes of Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM.
While we can’t predict exactly how hot the rest of the summer will be, there’s no doubt that demand response will be called in at some point. Texas is a likely target, given that demand response helped avoid blackouts there last year, and analysts are predicting a potential short-term generation shortage.
Other demand response newsmakers last week include Comverge, which announced Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as a client. The Norcross, Ga.-based company was taken private in a $49 million buyout by H.I.G. Capital in March, but has been adding customers since then.
Oklahoma will be the site of another demand response experiment this year, as utility Oklahoma Gas & Electric rolls out a full-scale power-shedding program based on smart meters and residential thermostats. About 40,000 customers on peak pricing plans are to deliver about 70 megawatts of load reduction this summer. The utility will add another 110,000 customers to the program in coming years, in hopes of deferring the need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new power plants to cover the peak.
Heat isn’t the only weather threat utilities face this summer. Last weekend, storms left millions of customers without power across the East Coast and Midwest regions, with utilities still repairing the damage as of Monday.
Those affected ranged from homeowners to massive power users like Amazon, which saw its Virginia data center knocked out Friday night, affecting cloud services for customers including Netflix and Instagram. Notably, the outage lasted only about nine minutes, but led to problems that were still being corrected days later.
Distribution automation and “self-healing” grid systems can help restore such outages faster. Take Chattanooga, Tenn. municipal utility EPB, which says its fiber-connected distribution automation system helped prevent about 25,000 customers from losing power after a September 2010 storm that knocked out service to about 59,000 customers, and saw similar benefits after a massive storm in April 2011.
But there’s only so much that DA can do to prevent outages. Especially when there’s physical damage to repair, nothing beats a work crew. Utility First Energy said it sent out more than 3,200 workers to restore power to its 566,000 customers affected by last weekend thunderstorms -- and as of Sunday, 222,000 still remained without power.
That doesn’t bode well for New York City, where a worker lockout has left about 8,000 positions unfilled at utility Consolidated Edison as it heads into peak summer season. The utility and Utility Workers Union of America representatives failed to reach an agreement in contract negotiations over the weekend, marking ConEd’s first worker lockout since the 1980s.
As of late Monday, union workers were picketing ConEd’s Manhattan headquarters and warning that the utility’s 5,000 or so replacement workers might not be able to handle the heat wave expected to come through this week. The two sides are now scheduled to meet on Thursday.
At least ConEd can count on about 10,000 remote-controlled air conditioners to help smooth out that peak demand. In late April, the utility launched a project with ThinkECO to deploy the startup’s smartphone-controllable modlets that attach to window AC units, which are otherwise difficult-to-reach sources of peak power demand.
At the same time, big commercial property owners in the city have been banding together for emergency demand response for years now. It’s also working with partners like Siemens and TIBCO on a technology platform to tie its new smart grid systems into demand response capabilities.
Finally, in Southern California we’re seeing a lot of uncertainty over how the region’s utilities will manage losing about 10 percent of its power generation capacity over the summer. Last month, Southern California Edison confirmed that the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, would be offline for the summer for testing and repair.
That could force blackouts across the region, although utility and state energy officials are hoping that emergency conservation measures can prevent that from happening. In the meantime, SCE had already paid about $30 million in replacement power costs through the end of March and was expecting that figure to climb through the summer.