At DistribuTECH 2013, Signs that Utilities are Connecting to Smart Grid Customers “For Real”

by Peter Manos
Principal Strategy Consultant

In a conference as big as DistribuTECH, it would be naïve to expect everyone to have the same experience, yet the common thread of utilities improving customers’ quality of life was woven through the fabric of the event. 

I was there presenting research and representing clients for McDonnell Group. We had 20 clients exhibiting or presenting as well, and while they represented a wide range of software and hardware solutions, all of them are focused on innovations that enable utilities to optimally provide their customers reliable, economical electric service.

On Sunday, January 27th, the week in San Diego began with the EL&P Executive Conference, where Teresa Hansen, Electric Light & Power editor in chief, gave the Utility of the Year award to Southern Company. The utility, she said, achieved high rankings in key areas including customer satisfaction under CEO Thomas Fanning’s leadership.

Teresa Hansen also gave Utility CEOs of the Year Awards to Pepco Holdings CEO Joseph Rigby and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority General Manager Walter Haase, citing the fact that they are “protecting lives and providing a better quality of life for Americans.” 

DistribuTECH opened on Tuesday morning with a keynote by Michael Niggli, President and Chief Operating Officer of San Diego Gas & Electric. He  described how our industry is advancing and accelerating use of smart grid technologies “like we have never seen before,” emphasizing that “it is always about our customers and what we can do for them and the choices we can give them and how we can make their lives more comfortable and as inexpensive as possible.”

Throughout the week, San Diego’s fleet of Car2Go cars, which many of us saw zipping around town, provided a tangible symbol that the smart grid initiatives are “for real.” 

Niggli reported that the fleet, at 300, is currently the largest Car2Go fleet in the world, and is expected to grow to as much as 200,000 by 2020.  These electric vehicles are readily located using Smart Phone apps, require no set return times or locations, and cost 35 cents per minute, $13 per hour, or $66 per day.  (Need we mention you don’t have to fill the tank?)

Also very much “for real” is SDG&E’s smart metering program.  Niggli reported that SDG&E recently finished roll-out of smart meters and now has connectivity to every single one of its customers.  He pointed out that this connectivity gives them a tremendous opportunity for an innovation platform for better demand response and energy conservation. 

Increased participation in demand response, energy conservation, and a staggering 3% per MONTH growth rate in the use of rooftop PVs has SDG&E solidly on its planned pathway to 33% renewable by 2020 and a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions down to 1990 levels in the same time frame.

zip carNiggli reported that SDG&E’s tech savvy customers are helping to drive numerous improvements.  He also referenced SDG&E’s new OMS being unveiled, and the fact that it links to all SDGE&’s smart meter devices.  This OMS “gives us tremendous situational awareness--there have since been dozens of situations where crews have been on site repairing a problem before the first customer has called in.  It is always nice when your call center gets a caller that says ‘my power is out’ and you can say yes, we know, and by the way look out your window—we are right there and we are helping you right now.” 

How does all of SDG&E’s innovation relate to communicating with customers?  A great amount of work on our infrastructure will be needed in order to support large fleets of electric vehicles and higher levels of connectivity with our customers. 

“Connectivity” here is three-fold:  electric, IT, and marketing communications. 

All three of these connectivities are “going two-way” now:

1. Residential PVs and other distributed energy resources are pushing power back to the grid from customers.
2. A great deal more data has begun to flow two ways between customers and utilities.
3. Marketing communications between utilities and customers now increasingly flows two ways, providing information for segmentation of tailored programs to work effectively.

When a utility has all three of these things going in both directions rather than one direction, then you know their smart grid is “for real.”

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