What the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project Means for Small Utilities

With the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project (PNWSGDP) wrapped up and reports from the subprojects rolling out, utilities are now able to review the reports for applicable lessons learned. Smaller utilities in particular should find the results valuable as they begin moving forward with any smart grid projects they’ve been planning. Larger utilities usually have teams of researchers and enough leverage to get manufacturers to sign on to pilot projects that will give them a better idea of how a full rollout will go, but smaller utilities don’t always have those elements at their disposal. Well-documented results, such as were released at the close of the PNWSGDP, can be a treasure trove of valuable information for them.

Project review for perspective:

  • The PNWSGDP was a $179 million federally funded project that featured 50% matching for individual projects
  • The project started in 2009 and wrapped up in mid-2015
  • The project was 1 of 16 across the US, and was the only one to include multiple states and utilities
  • There were 55 unique instantiations included in the project
  • One of the main successes of the project was the development and deployment of a unique transactive system that coordinated distributed energy resources and demand response components

A number of smaller Pacific Northwest utilities participated in the project and were critical to helping the Bonneville Power Administration get a better understanding of how to integrate their customer base into widespread solutions. Some of the participants and their projects are listed below:

  • Benton PUD
    • 50,000 electric meters; smart meter data leveraging and energy storage pilot
  • City of Ellensburg
    • 10,000 electric meters; solar and wind energy test out
  • Peninsula Light Company
    • 31,000 electric meters; demand-side management, conservation voltage reduction, and distribution automation
  • Flathead Electric
    • 49,000 electric meters; advanced metering infrastructure, demand response, transactive system participant
  • Milton-Freewater
    • 7,000 electric meters; transactive incentive signaling
  • Idaho Falls
    • 26,000 electric meters; voltage management, power factor control, demand response, distribution automation

After reviewing the reports published by the Battelle Memorial Institute, we have compiled a short list of lessons learned that we think will be of use to any utility considering undertaking a relatively complex smart grid project. While this list is not comprehensive, we hope to grow it over time as more smart grid projects roll out. Please feel free to contact us with comments or input.

Lessons learned from the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project

  • Engage all of the stakeholders at the beginning of any project. Bring together all of the disparate groups that will be involved and make sure that everyone is on the same page concerning the project procedures and goals. This can help fight off the systemic confusion that will start to creep into any relatively complex undertaking.
  • Ensure that you have a technical champion on board. If you don’t have anyone on staff who will go to bat for the project you run the risk of the whole project falling apart from a lack of momentum or from an existential challenge. You may need to look outside of the current organization to find the right person.
  • Take advantage of consortiums. Tackling big problems on your own without the manpower or expertise can bog projects down and lead to eventual failure. Don’t be afraid to tap manufacturers or government agencies and ask them to take over parts of a project that they’re better suited for.
  • It is not always instantly clear what the quantitative benefits of smart equipment may be.  Often there is an incremental increase in reliability and other indices that is hard to attribute to one specific improvement, since system upgrades, maintenance and other activities are occurring at the same time as pilot projects. Keep this in mind and trust your research. Go back and review if results start getting confusing.
  • Vendors: they go out of business. In the utility industry your best bet is usually a well-proven technology supplied by a seasoned manufacturer. When dealing with new technology it may be harder to find this perfect combination due to the timeframes involved. Make sure your contracts are airtight and all parties are on the same page with critical elements like liquidated damages.
  • Beef up connections between Engineering and IT departments. They will need to be able to work together smoothly if any technologically complex smart grid project will be successfully implemented. Schedule regular meetings and find common terminology so that issues can be dealt with in a timely manner without unnecessary confusion.
  • Be proactive about customer engagement. Think about what type of terminology will work best with your member base. Avoid words that will turn members away from projects. Know your base and the things they care about.
  • Ensure that disparate components are interoperable. Sometimes differing firmware or even simply other software versions of the same technology (Zigbee for example) may have a hard time interoperating. Definitely check interoperability between competitors’ equipment. Require of vendors that industry standards be followed to allow current and future compatibilities.

One of Smart Grid Northwest’s main areas of activity (read all three here) is planning and implementation: engaging regional stakeholders to establish a robust smart grid roadmap that encourages research, commercialization, and demonstration projects and leads to the implementation of smart grid concepts and technologies. We are excited to be able to utilize the results from this groundbreaking project to help utilities in the region implement their smart grid plans. For more information and reports, visit the project information repository at smartgrid.gov.


Stephan Williams