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Pre-Pay, Distribution Management, and Integration at DistribuTECH 2012

By Jon T. Brock, Desert Sky Group, LLC

January 26, 2012


The utility distribution market is alive and well in North America.  Returning from DistribuTECH 2012, attended by over 7,000 industry participants, and hosted by the city of San Antonio, I am coming to the conclusion that utility distribution companies have a lot going on, whether they are electric, gas, or water utilities.  Granted the electric utilities have somewhat “hijacked” the event with the term we all are getting to know as smart grid (I didn’t count but must have seen the term on most vendor exhibition booths), there were still a healthy representation of gas and water utilities.


As I attended sessions and exhibits, I reflected back almost a decade ago when DistribuTECH consisted of linemen in work clothes watching demos of re-closures or other transformer and sub-station type technologies.  Now the event has morphed into attendees in business casual viewing demos that look like they have come from the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.   While impossible to physically visit every exhibit and attend every session, I did notice several trends that kept repeating throughout the event.



That’s right, pre-pay.  While debated many times over the course of many years, pre-pay seems to be gaining traction among utilities and even some regulators.  Last year’s DistribuTECH in San Diego released research pointing to pre-pay as a possible trend, and this year I heard rumblings (not the thunderstorm that rocked San Antonio Tuesday night) confirming it as a trend.  While at DistribuTECH, pre-pay vendor PayGo Electric announced a pilot program with Georgia Power to study the commercial feasibility of providing the option of a prepaid electric service to the company's existing and future customers.  David Elve, recently hired smart meter expert, confirmed the interest from both utilities and regulators in a pre-pay option that resides in the smart meters.


Distribution Management

It only makes sense that distribution management systems (DMS) are starting a trend upwards following a large push for smart metering and sensors on the grid.  Following a progression from substation automation to distribution automation to distribution management systems, a common piece of functionality gaining traction is the conservation voltage regulation (CVR) or Volt/VAR control and optimization.  While not new to utilities, the ability to automate it and execute it from an enterprise level seems to be reaping benefits.  Overheard at a session, Progress Energy stated that implementing a distribution management system from Telvent (owned by Schneider Electric) consisted of 10 percent of its project costs but reaped benefits in the neighborhood of 90 percent.  Voltage reductions ranged from 2.5 - 5 percent.  With numbers like that, utilities will take a hard look at the DMS as a critical part of its operation’s infrastructure.



The number of new technologies both from a hardware and software perspective is overwhelming to say the least.  Many benefits can be gained from these new technologies, but it requires a successful integration of them and other pieces of hardware and software.  Integration vendors with experience tying it all together have grown in presence on the exhibit floor.  I have vocalized that benefits from smart metering need to have integration to the outage management system; however, I have not seen many utilities that are far enough along to demonstrate a full integration.  But to my pleasant surprise, I stumbled upon Power Stream, Inc., Ontario’s second largest municipal utility.  Power Stream, serving approximately 328,000 customers north of Toronto, has fully integrated its smart meters to the outage management system.  Apparently early indicators demonstrated an annual savings of up to $250,000 CAD (not that it really matters with the Canadian and US dollar hovering close to each other) per year from reduced truck rolls as a result of outage activity alone.  It should be noted that this number will fluctuate by utility and also represents just one of the benefits of proper integration.  Getting new technology is one thing, but successfully integrating it is another.  Watch for integration efforts at utilities to increase in the coming years.


While I have not done justice to all the topics covered at DistribuTECH 2012, I note here three trends I personally saw and heard discussed multiple times at the event: pre-pay, distribution management, and integration.  I want to thank PennWell and the city of San Antonio for hosting one of the industries’ largest events and “reunions” of sorts (I enjoyed seeing friends, colleagues, clients from all parts of the globe).  Safe travels to all returning home and hope to see you next year in San Diego.  

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