Tag Archives: smart grid

Ontario gov launches $50,000 contest, challenges app developers to put smart meter data to good use

Now that nearly 5 million Ontario homes and small businesses have smart meters, the province has access to a tsunami of energy usage data. The question now is what’s the best use of it? As part of efforts to open up this data store and make it available to third-party developers — part of the “green button” initiative — the Ontario energy ministry issued today a challenge to app developers. Come up with a mobile app that makes the best use of this data and win part of $50,000 in cash that is available for prizes. Developers have until Jan. 7 to submit their app, and the winners will be announced in early 2014. “Awards include Gold, Silver and Bronze, Best Student App, Best App Created Outside of Ontario, and People’s Choice,” according to the ministry.

Will be interesting to see what emerges from this contest.

The smarter the grid, the less you should notice it

The smart grid is more than just smart meters. My Clean Break column this week takes a look at how Toronto Hydro is trying to modernize its electrical distribution system with a range of smart-grid technologies that don’t get much press.

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Tyler Hamilton

Richard Ford doesn’t like the term smart grid.

“It means different things to different people,” says the manager of grid solutions at Toronto Hydro. “The term has become overused. It gets in the way.”

Many hydro customers in the city associate the term with the smart meters in their homes and the time-of-use pricing they enable. Some imagine a smart home or building equipped with intelligent appliances and lighting systems that interact with each other and can be remotely managed by software to reduce energy use.

Others think of a kind of energy Internet made up of millions of users and thousands of large and small power producers, all part of a complex web of two-way electricity flows.

The smart grid isn’t any one of those things – it’s all of them, and more. In fact, a big part of the smart grid that rarely gets discussed has to do with technologies that make our electricity system more reliable and safe. These are the behind-the-scenes technologies we don’t and aren’t meant to see. The better they work the less likely we are to notice them.

For the past three years Toronto Hydro has been giving some of these “smart” technologies a test run on the transformers and power lines that make up its electrical distribution network.

Take transformers, those large grey cans on hydro poles that convert high-voltage electricity down to the low voltage we use in our homes. The utility has roughly 60,000 of these devices spread throughout its operating territory.

“In the past we haven’t had any detailed information about how those transformers were performing – whether any were systematically overloaded or underloaded,” explains Ford, adding that even when the devices fail they don’t know about it until customers call to complain.

About 5,600 city transformers now have a kind of smart meter embedded inside, allowing the utility to know what kind of stresses are being placed on the device and to act proactively before its fails, which tends to be at the most inconvenient times – say, during a SuperBowl or hockey playoff game.

What benefit does this bring to electricity consumers? The typical transformer failure means affected customers will be without power for about 7.5 hours. On the other hand, a less inconvenient pre-planned outage aimed at upgrading the transformer before it fails only takes about 70 minutes.

This will become increasingly important as more homeowners add solar panels to their rooftops and plug in electric vehicles overnight for charging. It will give the utility better insight into the changing patterns of electricity use in our neighbourhoods, and allow it to plan accordingly.

An added bonus: smart transformers make it easier to spot grow-ops that have illegally tapped into the system.

The utility is also monitoring some of its power lines. Sensor-based devices attached to the lines can spot abnormal electrical activity and alert control-room staff so they can analyse the data. The analytic software has become so sophisticated it can detect the signatures of different events, such as an overgrown tree rubbing up against a line or a jumping squirrel.

“We keep looking for more signatures of more events,” says Ford. “We want to identify potential faults before they turn into real faults.”

If, for example, a problem is identified as tree overgrowth, a crew can be dispatched to inspect and trim branches. The utility has seven power line monitoring devices installed to date, but plans to add more as part of normal grid upgrades.

On top of power line and transformer monitoring, Toronto Hydro is test driving feeder automation technology. Feeders are higher-voltage power lines that supply electricity to a large area of homes and businesses. Sometimes an unpredictable event, such as a vehicle accident or damage from a backhoe, can cause one section of a feeder to fail.

If a feeder serves thousands of people the resulting outage would affect all of them, and it could take 10s of minutes to a couple of hours for service to be phased back in. Automation technology can isolate a fault on a feeder line and almost immediately restore service to most of the customers affected.

Feeder automation technology has been installed on 10 of the city’s worst feeders since 2010. An outage on one of those feeders in August 2011 affected 4,493 customers. Normally all of them would have a long wait for the lights to come back on, but the automation technology isolated the fault to just one customer – the other 4,492 got service automatically restored within a minute.

It’s an extreme example, says Ford, but illustrates well how the technology can improve customer service.

“We’d like to see all of these technologies more widespread,” he adds. “The benefit is that customers will be interrupted less, and hopefully never even notice when they are.”

It’s not as sexy as the image of a smart home with an electric car in the driveway, solar panels on the roof, intelligent appliances in the kitchen, and a battery pack in the basement. That “stuff” will come, says Ford, but we need to lay the foundation first.

“What we’re doing today is making better use of our existing assets, getting more out of them by making them more effective and more efficient.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Siemens to acquire Canada’s RuggedCom for $382 million, a 50% premium to Belden’s hostile offer

Good news for shareholders of Toronto-based RuggedCom, one of the world’s leading makers of ruggedized networking gear for the smart grid. Facing a hostile takeover from St. Louis-based Belden Inc., RuggedCom has found a white knight in Siemens Canada Ltd., the Canadian subsidiary of German industrial giant Siemens AG.

Siemens has agreed to purchase RuggedCom for $382 million or $33 a share, compared to the $272.4 million or $22 a share offer from Beldon. It represents a 50% premium on a per-share basis and, quite frankly, Siemens is a better fit for RuggedCom and for keeping innovation in Ontario.

Siemens Canada, which is based in Burlington, Ont., has a strong and growing presence in Canada — about 4,400 employees and $3 billion in annual revenues. It is also pushing hard into the same smart grid space occupied by its main competitor, General Electric. Ontario is shaping up to become a hub of smart grid development in North America, so it makes sense for Siemens and Vaughan, Ont.-based RuggedCom to hook up.

I was the first journalist to write about RuggedCom with a story in the Toronto Star back in July 2006. Since then it has consistently grown revenues and profits, even during the downturn. “Either we’re going to get acquired by a strategic peer or reach a point where we’ve got … a good story to take it to an IPO,” company founder and CEO Marzio Pozzuoli confidently told me when we first spoke nearly six years ago. Pozzuoli, by the way, was a technology manager in GE’s power management operation before deciding to leave the company to found RuggedCom. Such a good move. The successful IPO part came true in 2007, and now the strategic acquisition part is coming true with the Siemens purchase. As Pozzuoli stated today, “We have great respect for Siemens and believe RuggedCom will be well positioned for continued growth and industry leadership under their ownership.”

Could RuggedCom have done it alone? Perhaps — but with the massive clout of Siemens behind it, it can do a heck of a lot better. That’s just how the cleantech space is expected to be over the coming years, as startups with great technology and proven leadership seek the resources and reach of established multinationals. An added benefit to this deal is that it seems to reinforce Siemens’ commitment to Ontario.

Enbala Networks brings demand-response to grid regulation

Toronto-based Enbala Networks has brought demand-response to a new level — just don’t call it demand-response.

In traditional demand-response, companies such as Comverge and EnerNOC sign up dozens, potentially hundreds of clients that agree to reduce their energy demand when asked.  When a heat wave hits and electricity demand spikes, a power system operator will ask a Comverge or EnerNOC to orchestrate a large-scale demand reduction for a specific period of time. These companies (and their clients) get paid to reduce their electricity, with the idea being that the cost of such programs is far less expensive than the cost of building (and paying for) a natural gas peaker plant to do the job — that is, negawatts is cheaper than natural gas megawatts.

EnerNOC, for example, said it was able to reduce power demand across the United States last week by 1,230 megawatts when asked to kick its services into action.

But this is only one form of demand-response. What about the second-by-second fluctuations on the grid that require what the industry calls “regulation”? Regulation is a way to constantly balance supply and demand on the system, and it’s usually accomplished by power generators that get paid a hefty premium to do the job (In Ontario hydroelectric facilities in Niagara Falls play a major role). In early 2010, Enbala Networks decided to participate in an Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) program aimed at proving that demand-response could work for regulation services as well.

The company issued a call in June 2010 for municipal and industrial partners that had the flexibility, when asked, to reduce power demand regularly throughout the day and night. Ideal candidates were water and wastewater treatment facilities, wood chipping and rock crushing facilities, companies that had large electric boilers, chillers and battery charging loads, and partners that relied heavily on industrial ventilation. In other words, anyone that used lots of electricity for equipment that could easily be turned on and off without materially affecting the overall operation of the organization. You might call it flexibility harvesting, and Enbala has built a smart grid platform that does it well.

Enbala went ahead with the pilot project and a year later the company and the IESO appear satisfied with the outcome. Now that proof-of-concept is out of the way, it will be interesting to see where it leads. Will Enbala be able to replicate it in other jurisdictions and turn it into a vibrant money-making business? Will the IESO expand the pilot into a full-scale commercial program, giving the Ontario grid a faster and cheaper way to balance supply and demand?

The smart grid demands no less, and this approach will become increasingly important, along with energy storage, as we add more intermittent renewables to the power mix.

Ontario making strong progress on smart grid development

The Ontario Smart Grid Forum, a group led by the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator, released today its latest report on smart grid development. The report, titled “Modernizing Ontario’s Electricity System: Next Steps,” documents progress that has been made since the Forum’s first report two years ago and the many smart grid-related activities currently underway. It also makes several recommendations that will help build on the current momentum of development.

The report touches on electric vehicles and related infrastructure, emergence of the smart home, importance of privacy protection, integration of energy storage, challenges of managing an expected deluge of what I like to call “gridformation”, and the overall importance of industry standards. It also attempts to quantify the expected annual investment in smart grid technologies, systems and training over the next five years.

Disclosure: I was contracted by the IESO to prepare this report so am reserving comment. That said, for anyone interested in Ontario’s smart grid activities this report offers a great sense of where the province is coming from, where it’s at, and where it is going on all things related to the smart grid.