Using Data is Key to Grid Development

Information can heighten grid security, top government and utility leaders tell Icons of Infrastructure Washington conference.

Regulators Must Get Proactive – And Stay Paranoid

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The public and private sectors are increasingly focused on using analytics to make the nation’s electrical grid more secure.

“We’re looking at how do you get information out of the data you already have,” Eric Lightner, director of the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Task Force,  said during Icons of Infrastructure’s June 28 Advancing the Electrical Grid event in Washington.

“You have data coming from your advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network; you have weather data; and all kinds of voltage data, he said.

“I’m thinking about how you share measurements and applications to determine value you didn’t see before,” Lightner said.

Lightner noted that DOE sees great promise in using algorithms and analytics to extract data. He added that, for the most part, the department’s emphasis has moved away from research and development and more toward the application of existing technology.

“We’re looking at sensors, controls, storage and transmission lines,” Lightner said. “I’d say predominantly, maybe 85 percent of what we’re looking at is how to use the same technology to accomplish different things.”

Rodney Blevins, Dominion Energy senior vice president and chief information officer, said that the utility is currently using analytics in its customer information system to identify those who steal power.

He added that the cyber security component of Dominion Energy’s industrial control system side is able to use data analysis to detect anomalous behavior on the grid. The potential applications for analytics are far more robust, he said.

“The opportunities for analytics to turn into insight for better operation of the grid in terms of service or resiliency is almost endless at this point,” Blevins said, noting that firms such as Waynesburg, Pennsylvania-based Seven Point Energy in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey showed the extent to which data could be used.

“There are a lot of things you think about in terms of storm restoration but they got into things like coastal flooding and knowing what figures are in the water,” he said. “They got into a level of sophistication that really gets you excited [for what analytics are capable of].”

“The opportunities for analytics to turn into insight for better operation of the grid … is almost endless at this point,” says Rodney Blevins, Dominion Energy CIO.”

Lightner said that the DOE is also investing in high-fidelity, low-cost sensor technology as a means to bolster the speed and amount of data available to utilities. He noted that the sensors will relay high-frequency information about events occurring on the grid to utilities, allowing them to replace assets such as transformers more proactively.

The Trump administration has shifted the agency’s focus to national security and grid reliance and away from research and development, according to Lightner. However, the DOE is also exploring the use of microgrid technology to mitigate the effects of devastating natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.

The agency has participated in demonstrations and deployments of microgrid technology in other countries, Lightner said. Despite having begun researching the technology in 2012, it has not yet been universally adopted on the U.S. grid.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to apply these on a national basis where it will be cost effective to avoid the extent of some of these events in the future,” Lightner said.

Blevins said that the development of grid technology requires a significant amount of R&D, which due to time constraints is not the best fit for venture investors. He added that exiting development models must be explored for continued maintenance and advancement of the grid.

“A development model that allows for longer time horizons to fully develop products before they are deployed by the thousands is absolutely necessary for continued R&D,” Blevins said. “We simply don’t have the option to expose the grid to product failure.”

Blevins also noted during the event that while there are states that fund R&D directly, the regulatory environment largely determines the degree of investment and deployment of new technologies. He added that while infrastructure builders have to be more transparent throughout the construction process, regulators have to deliver certainty in terms of what is required in the timeline.

Lightner said that while other public agencies stand to see reductions in funding due to sweeping federal tax cuts, the DOE and the Smart Grid Task Force remains in a privileged position.

“I think funding for research in the electrical industry is seen as a valuable investment by both parties,” Lightner said. “Moving forward I don’t think there will be huge increases for our budget, but in times of a lot of cost cutting, to be levelly funded is a big win.”

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