THE THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM, OR SO THE OLD SAYING GOES. FOR San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), all three times have been magical, actually. Last year marked the third year the California utility captured the UtiliQ crown as the most intelligent U.S. utility.
Sempra Energy-owned SDG&E is a regulated public utility that provides energy service to 3.5 million people through 1.4 million electric meters and 850,000 natural gas meters in San Diego and southern Orange counties. Its service area spreads across 4,100 square miles and spans 25 separate communities. The utility employs approximately 5,000 people who work daily to deliver power in intuitive and intelligent ways, according to Jim Avery, senior vice president of power supply with SDG&E.
And one of the most intelligent ways to deliver power these days is through a smart meter.
Smart meter, smart grid
SDG&E replaced both its gas and electric meters with the smarter versions in 2011, allowing for remote measurements, in-depth communications and more interactive customer applications.
Avery said that the biggest hurdle of the metering program was "dealing with externalities," things that couldn't be anticipated beforehand. But good communication before, during and after the installation helped customers "feel like they were a part of the overall deployment process."
In fact, the deployment went so well that the California Public Utilities Commission highlighted the utility's meter plan as a type of "gold standard." Avery was quick to point out that the utility didn't work so hard to get the praise, rather that the praise was a bonus from the hard work, which the utility does because of a passion for power and the consumer.
"We don't do this for the accolades; it's merely in our DNA," he said. This desire to serve the customer well has led to a number of technological deployments to help keep SDG&E's consumers content and well-informed while the system itself has become increasingly more reliable. The utility has had the highest reliability numbers in the western U.S. for the past six years. SDG&E isn't resting, however; there's always more to do to prepare for the future.
Glimpses of the future
"In the electric industry today, as we modernize our grid here in the San Diego region and around the U.S., we have not begun to dream of what our future will be," Avery added.
But there are a few glimpses into that future. The learning curve for SDG&E reliability will likely be defined at technology hot spots like the utility's Borrego Springs microgrid project.
SDG&E's been experimenting with microgrid options such as the $15 million Borrego Springs project to reduce feeder peak load by 15 percent, examine volt-amps-reactive (VAR) management and to continue to enhance system reliability. Located in a small desert town east of Escondido, the project is currently on track to becoming one of the first fully functioning utility-sponsored microgrids in the country.
The community's isolation and related system problems made it ideal to host a microgrid pilot project, allowing SDG&E to dramatically increase reliability for the small community while investing in a "living laboratory," as Avery called it, to work on the power industry's future issues, from renewables integration to customer participation.
"By the end of this year, we'll have a large part of the Borrego Springs equation up and running, but the project doesn't have an end date. We will learn from it, grow and make changes as the variables change," Avery said.
From grid to renewables
The Borrego Springs microgrid project isn't the only smart concept on tap for SDG&E; it's a leader in this smart grid evolution. In fact, the utility has 60 initiatives in the smart grid arena in which many average U.S. utilities clock in at four or five.
And projects like Borrego Springs have multiple applications beyond the smart grid. It will add managing renewables knowledge as well as smart grid concepts to the SDG&E portfolio because the variables required to manage a microgrid are similar to the variables required to manage renewable energy.
Additionally, SDG&E has cleared a number of renewable energy goals this year along with work at Borrego Springs, including hitting short-term generation numbers of 20 percent renewable generation, which the utility achieved in just the past few months despite having a larger renewables gap than any other California utility under that same directive and time frame.
Additionally, the utility's Sunrise Powerlink transmission line project is well into the construction phase, allowing a variety of renewable energy initiatives from the Imperial Valley-wind, solar and even biomass-to be accessible by the smarter San Diego grid in the near future.
At the fore on many fronts
SDG&E leads in many arenas: smart grid, smart meters and renewables. Its metering deployment may have set the standard for customer interaction kudos, but the latest customer-centric project on that list is Green Button.
Green Button allows customers to access their smart meter usage information. SDG&E is one of three utilities-all in California-launching the new tool, which puts up to 13 months of consumption data at the digital fingertips of the utility's consumer. The consumer can then export that data in a simple format to other applications.
Green Button developed from a White House call to action, asking utilities to develop consumption tools for consumers similar to Blue Button that delivers simple-to-understand health care data. Avery loves Green Button because it's a nationwide push for a standard platform that can be utilized by everyone, as cooperation and collaboration are two of SDG&E's cultural touchstones for smart grid efforts and the utility's overall plans for a brighter energy future.
That mindset of collaborations and bringing everyone to the table is key to making SDG&E the most intelligent UtiliQ utility, according to Avery. SDG&E wants to deploy the best ideas from anyone, not play it close the vest with its own plans and ideas to the detriment of customer service. After all, part of the SDG&E DNA is built on customer service.
In SDG&E lore, five San Diegans met in the parlor of the Consolidated Bank on April 18, 1881, to incorporate the San Diego Gas Company. In the nearly 131 years since that meeting, SDG&E has become more than a simple supplier of gas and electricity. It has grown into a leader serving the seventh largest city in the U.S. in both traditional and cutting-edge ways-the traditional mindset of customer service paired with more intelligent technology and devices, making it the leading UtiliQ utility in 2011.