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Smart Cities May Give Utilities an Opportunity to Refresh their Roles

June 7th, 2016 · No Comments · Energy

By Paul Ciampoli, News Director of Public Power Daily
A Publication of the American Public Power Association (APPA)
Reposted with permission from the March 22, 2016 issue

Smart cities represent a “wonderful opportunity” for the electric utility industry to “refresh the role and the relevance that we have to the communities we serve,” said Roger Woodworth, vice president at Washington state-based investor-owned utility Avista Corp., on March 17.

Woodworth, who is also president of Avista Development, made his comments at “Powering the People: Key Trends Driving Change,” a conference held in Washington and sponsored by the Edison Foundation Institute for Electric Innovation.

Roger Woodworth, President of Avista Development

Roger Woodworth, President of Avista Development

As an infographic in the November-December 2015 issue of Public Power magazine notes, smart cities combine efficiency and improved and streamlined public services, along with new technologies and management tools, to improve services and lower consumption.

The Avista official noted that globally, there are hundreds of cities that are currently pursuing efforts to try to integrate technologies to improve city performance.

The smart city trend is becoming increasingly popular “because it’s taking technology and not turning it inward to a single utility, to a single purpose, but looking at cross purposes,” Woodworth told the audience of utility officials. “So how do we leverage that? How do we think about our role in that?”

Woodworth said that the “relative novelty” of electricity has faded over time. “Everything we’re doing is behind the scenes,” he said. “Well, maybe it’s time to change that.”

Smart cities give the power industry “a chance to rethink, and refresh and reimagine the role that we play as an industry in service to communities to empower people to do great things,” the Avista official went on to say.

“That’s what our services do anyway,” Woodworth pointed out. “But we get caught up in not really pushing that envelope, not really experimenting about that future, and the consequence of that is what we harvest – that we’re not always at the table, that we’re not always thought of as an enabling infrastructure, and yet we are.”

Smart grid project in Washington State

Woodworth said that Avista is “starting to wonder, ‘Well, gee, we’ve just had some phenomenal success at establishing a smart grid city” in Pullman, Washington.

The Pullman project involves automation of many parts of the electric distribution system using advanced metering technology, enhanced communication and other elements of smart grid. Avista joined with regional partners, led by Battelle, to develop the smart grid demonstration project using matching stimulus funds from the Department of Energy.

“We got through that and it works, it’s phenomenal — the transactive signals, the whole nine yards,” Woodworth said.

“The smarter circuits, the more efficient response that we have, the efficiency on the system, but it begs the question — if it works so well, what’s the next experiment we might try? And we said, well maybe it has to do with not just what we can do with technology for us, but how what we’re going to do anyway in upgrading the system and modernizing the grid — how that might be put to use for extra value,” the Avista official noted.

So the utility set off on a three-phase effort that culminated in where the utility is today, “which is to say, ‘OK, we understand what people need from it — how do we build it? What’s the true architecture of the technical system? And that’s in progress today. We’ve not built it yet,” Woodworth said.

White House launched smart cities initiative in 2015

In September 2015, the Obama Administration announced a smart cities initiative that the White House said will invest over $160 million in federal research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities tackle key challenges.

As part of the announcement, the White House said that Envision America, a new nationwide nonprofit, would be issuing a challenge to cities to become smarter by accelerating deployment of innovative technologies that tackle energy, water, waste, and air challenges.

The administration said that city leaders from 10 winning communities would participate in an Envision America workshop in early 2016.  Spokane, Washington, where Avista has its headquarters, was one of 10 cities chosen to participate in the workshop. Avista is involved in the Spokane project.

There are “more grants coming,” Woodworth told the conference. “Why? Because there’s a shift in policy, a change in technology that enables something new to happen that previously wasn’t possible.”

But it is now, he said. “So the question becomes what’s our role? Is there a role for us? And I’m not here to say, ‘Yes, go do it.’ But I am here to say, ‘Yes, you should be experimenting.’ Because if you don’t, others will,” the Avista official said.

The public power utility community has been actively involved in numerous smart grid projects as detailed in the March-April issue of Public Power magazine.

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