Timothy J Lindahl, CEO, Wheat Belt Public Power District
Increasing complexity, driven by regulation, consumer expectations, consumer diversity, and non-traditional resources has led to the need for the traditional small distribution utility to find creative ways to adapt and excel in the 21st century. Our saving grace? Technology. Electricity in and of itself is a technology that has become imperative to the success of a society. It is not a surprise that electric utilities continue to embrace new technologies to aid in the delivery and optimization of the original technology.
The not for profit model allows for various and competing forces to compel us to provide more with the same or smaller economic resources. The price of the product that we deliver has increased at a rate significantly below inflation, yet the utility of today is much more robust than it was even ten years ago.
"We have found that properly aligning and analyzing the data can be a better return on the technology investment, than the technology itself"
In order to maximize efficiencies, various technologies can be adopted, many of which can provide a significant return on investment. For us, a very sparsely populated utility covering a large service territory, extending communication into the field has had significant financial returns, and has created a foundation for implementation of many technologies. From SCADA, to an Advanced Metering Infrastructure to the use of the IoT, we have been able to significantly improve our operations, efficiency, and reliability, many times reducing our costs and ultimately, our consumers’ energy costs. To get the maximum return on these technologies, the utility must look beyond the initial use, and focus on the homogenous integration of all of these technologies, allowing each technology to gain additional benefit from the others. In addition to the integration, developing pricing signals that can utilize the capabilities in the field may save the consumer thousands of dollars. This can continue to be improved by the consumer utilizing consumer technologies to optimize their energy consumption against pricing signals.
Today’s electric utility, large or small, has the capability to generate very large amounts of data, which can exponentially increase with each new device. We often struggle with utilizing the data to its best. Many times overlooked, this data can be a key to accomplishing the goal of maximizing economic and energy efficiency. We have found that properly aligning and analyzing the data can be a better return on the technology investment, than the technology itself. Looking to the data to solve foundational challenges can allow for compounding benefits. This data transcends the entire utility, and can be key in making operational decisions as well as business decisions by identifying opportunities on a micro level. An example might be identifying an energy loss on a circuit (or even home) level that can identify a maintenance need, which can be corrected before a reliability issue occurs, which can have positive economic benefits long into the future. Combining metering data, billing data, IoT device data, and having the analytical backend to identify smaller problems that cannot be seen on the macro level provides great opportunities to make small improvements that add up to a substantial benefit.
The holistic approach must also include the additional risk that these technologies, and their data, put into the system. Cyber security, shifts in human resources, and shorter lifespan are paradigms that must be shifted in order for the utility to successfully integrate and utilize these technologies.
Yesterday’s electric utility will not survive tomorrow’s expectations without an evolving culture of adapting and embracing prudent technology investments, and looking beyond what a singular technology can do, but what it can do in the collective melting pot of advancements.