Reaching for 66% Customer Engagement: Portland General CEO Maria Pope Talks About PGE’s Smart Grid Test Bed Project

Portland General CEO Maria Pope announced the Smart Grid Test Bed project during her keynote address at GridFWD 2018, hosted by Smart Grid Northwest in Vancouver, BC. Starting in 2019, the two-and-a-half-year project is targeting an astounding 66% participation by eligible customers, and integrating smart grid technology “on a scale never before attempted in the United States.”

The announcement quoted Jon Wellinghoff, former chairman of FERC and CEO of Grid Policy: “The PGE Smart Grid Test Bed represents a leap forward in the relationship between customers and their energy providers.”

To learn how PGE plans to make this leap, we spent a few minutes talking with Maria Pope after her keynote. She was joined by Josh Keeling, Manager, Customer Energy Solutions, and Jason Salmi Klotz, Manager of Emerging Technologies, Customer Energy Solutions. You can also get more background on PGE’s Smart Grid Test Bed webpage.

Source: Smart Grid Northwest

Starting With Three Oregon Communities

PGE is building and testing three enhanced grids within three Oregon cities—Hillsboro, Portland and Milwaukie—enabling more than 20,000 customers to participate in the project. Participants will be able to take advantage of special demand-response signals and incentives for using smart-home technologies.

During the planning process, PGE identified substations within its service area that were among the first to receive the smart grid upgrades necessary to support accelerated development and use of high penetrations of customer-sited resources or distributed energy resources. Additionally, PGE wanted to make sure the project’s geography housed a representative subset of PGE customers, so that the learnings would be directly applicable to the remaining PGE service area.

PGE will leverage advanced communications capabilities and distribution system upgrades including hardware technology in the substations, and software solutions to integrate it all together. Three substations and their associated feeders in these cities will also be equipped with smart grid technologies such as new remote controls that increase system flexibility, reliability, safety and cyber security.

Customers participating in the Smart Grid Test Bed will be able to take advantage of special demand-response signals and incentives for using smart home technologies such as onsite generation, storage and EV charging stations. With more energy efficiency opportunities and increased control over their energy use and carbon footprint, these customers may see potential savings of about 10 percent. What makes the program truly unique is the bi-directional exchange of energy generated onsite and information, both contributing to greater grid flexibility and reliance on renewable energy sources during peak demand.

A Community-Based Push for 66% Participation Rate

Getting 66% participation of the customers in those targeted areas is a tall order, considering that most current programs achieve about 5 to 7%. PGE is borrowing from an old playbook – the Hood River Conservation Project (HRCP), a $20 million energy efficiency program from early 1980s—that showed how to leverage strong local advocates instead of mass media techniques to reach and motivate consumers.

HRCP logo. Click image to read about the project.

PGE’s program is engaging community leaders such as mayors, city managers, city councils, community sustainability leaders and others to create multiple paths to residential, commercial and industrial customers. “We have a cross economic perspective on how our communities—how our residential, commercial, and industrial customers—will all work together on something like this,” Pope said. As a result, the program can address energy equity and inclusion as well as energy savings and grid performance. Each of the participating cities sits on that advisory board to stay current and offer resources, and PGE will dedicate a person to collaborate within each of the cities.

In this community-based approach, “[we’re] getting into channels and into conversations that would normally be missed in a mass market approach,” explained Klotz. A staff of community organizers have the ability to engage in civic organizations, church groups and community programs that are already active, to engage customers where they already are.

Another constituency is small businesses, which are typically underserved in energy programs. They’re time-constrained and very different from one another, so it can be hard to make the economics work. The community-based approach can engage with small business associations and neighborhood associations where those businesses already congregate.

In parallel, PGE will leverage its existing commercial industrial programs to engage larger C&I customers in the region in more customized approach. Tying current programs into the project is seen as critical to its success: “We stand on the shoulders of all of the investment that has been made over the years to add technology to build a reliable, sustainable system,” Pope said.

Accelerated at the Rocky Mountain Institute

To devise the Smart Grid Test Bed program, PGE turned for guidance to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). A team representing all stakeholders went to RMI for its e-Lab Accelerator program. This team included representatives of the cities, which showed the depth of commitment at the local level: “We took people from the cities, away from their jobs for almost a week,” said Josh Keeling. It was at RMI that Jon Wellinghoff became intrigued with the project, and chose to participate personally in its success.

The project is now being steered by an advisory committee of local and national subject matter experts from the public and private sectors, including the Oregon Public Utility Council (PUC), NEEA, the Energy Trust of Oregon, and the Oregon Citizens Utility Board (on which Smart Grid Northwest executive director Bryce Yonker has a seat).

Optimizing Results and Going Renewable

The targeted 10% reduction in rates will be the result of several factors. The first is through peak shaving during the hottest days of the summer and the coldest days of the winter when the system is at a critical peak level. The Smart Grid Test Bed will make it easier for customers to integrate and automate smart devices—such as thermostats, water heaters, electric vehicle chargers and batteries—to work in concert with PGE. During peak times, customers will be able to decide on an event-by-event basis if they want to participate in reducing their overall energy consumption. Those who opt in will lower their bills.

“We have a cross economic perspective on how our communities—how our residential, commercial, and industrial customers—will all work together on something like this.” Maria Pope, CEO, PGE

PGE intends to communicate the opportunities and results through the advisory committees, RMI, the PUC and its community organizations. “We’re going to be learning together, sharing all of the data and the information, adjusting our programs as we move forward, and really taking it to the next level,” Pope explained.

There are clear benefits for customers who chose to participate, but what about the rest of the customer base? PGE sees that the improvements will flow into the flexibility, reliability and cost efficiency of the entire grid. Pope said that PGE “will be able to shave off the peak usage during the hottest days of the year and the coldest days of the year, reducing that usage by almost 25%.” And what works for the Smart Grid Test Bed customers can potentially be scaled to even more customers.

Source: PGE website

The entire service area will benefit as PGE integrates more renewable energy resources into its power supply—behind and in front of the meter. “As we look forward at Portland General, all of our additional generating resources in terms of energy will all be renewable,” Pope said. “That is important as we meet the state’s goals and our own goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050.”