The utility grid, says Todd Arnold, senior vice president for Smart Grid at US gas and electricity provider Duke Energy, is arguably the greatest engineering marvel of the 20th century. “Just think about how they’ve been able to provide affordable, clean and reliable power 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.
But that marvel is long overdue an upgrade, he adds. “As we’ve gone into the information age, wonderful as our grid is, it has remained mostly isolated from a connectivity standpoint.”
Duke is among the utility providers making that upgrade happen by deploying Smart Grid functionality today. Smart Grid is an umbrella term for a collection of technologies that allow utility grids to evolve from unidirectional energy pipes to become two-way networks of power that can be monitored and managed in order to maximise the efficiency of both production and usage.
It will – according to the vision – allow energy providers to balance their various power supplies according to demand, and customers to generate their own power and plug it back into the grid.
The US government has committed billions of dollars to promote the deployment of Smart Grid technology, both to tackle climate change and to stimulate industry. Behind Duke Energy’s own Smart Grid initiative is a programme it calls “Save A Watt”, in which every watt saved in efficiency is considered a cost saving, as it postpones the requirement to build new production facilities.
As early as 2006, Duke upgraded its meter data management system in anticipation of the demands of Smart Grid. But the company realised that it also needed a system by which to manage customer interactions of far greater complexity than they were used to.
“Utilities systems are generally built around monthly meter readings, and only a few service offerings,” Arnold explains. “A big piece of the benefit of Smart Grid is the ability to give your customers many more options and more control, so you need the systems and interfaces to support that. You are going from a batch-process world
to a much more real-time and data-intensive world.”
That led Duke to Convergys, a customer relationship management (CRM) provider, which until now has focused on the telecommunications sector. But for Arnold, the parallels are self-evident. “What’s happening in our world is very similar to what has already happened in the telecoms world, with the change from fixed line to mobile,” he says. “In the future we will be connected with customers generating their own power, using their own energy management systems. How you manage those contracts and services has many parallels with the mobile world.”
Arnold saw in Convergys a partner that could help it contend with the dimensions of the Smart Grid challenge. “The challenge for all utilities is going to be the ability to deploy Smart Grid at scale,” he says. “It’s not about deploying a few hundred new meters, it’s about millions of new devices. Changing business processes to the Smart Grid world is going to be a challenge for the industry, but I’m feeling very good about where we are now.”
Duke is now preparing to commence full-scale deployment in the State of Ohio in December. Thousands of customers each week will be given access to Smart Grid services such as daily energy usage monitoring, while Duke itself will be able to offer new billing plans such as pay-as-you-go.
But the company – and its customers – are already enjoying the fruits of its more sophisticated grid management system. Smart Grid allows devices that monitor the transfer of electricity over the power lines to be coordinated. In the event of a power cut, they can automatically reroute energy through lines that are still intact. Shortly after this system was installed, a power cut occurred that would ordinarily have cut electricity supply to around 1,200 homes. Instead, the outage was confined to just a “small number” of houses, says Arnold.