In Pursuit of a Grid of Things

July 6, 2015
We have to convert the grid that was built largely during the post-World War II boom years into a 21st Century grid.

EDITOR’S NOTE: San Francisco based PG&E was rocked by a devastating natural gas explosion five years ago, and its smart meter rollout was challenged by customers concerned about the new technology’s possible health and privacy impacts. Do deal with these and other challenges, PG&E brought in industry veteran Anthony Earley as chairman, chief executive and president four years ago. For an update, The Energy Times recently sat down with Earley for an exclusive interview.

This is the last of a two-part article. Last week in the Energy Times: PG&E Navigates Strict Policy Mandates.

ENERGY TIMES: What will the utility of the future look like?

EARLEY: We have to convert the grid that was built largely during the post-World War II boom years into a 21st Century grid. That grid was built in a day when you just jammed a lot of electricity into it and you took it out at end points. We need a grid that’s very interactive. You’ve got renewables coming and going depending on the weather and whether its day or night. You’ve got rooftop solar putting electricity in at all different points on the system. You need to have much more understanding of what’s going on in the system, and much more ability to control the flows of electricity in the system.  We call it the Grid of Things. There are going to be so many things attached to our grid, our grid has to be able to be plug and play.  If somebody wants to attach a rooftop solar – it has to be easy to do and it cannot hurt the system. If you want to put on a thermostat that electronically controls everything in your house, you can do that.  That’s one of the things we’re now focusing on and investing in. What does that grid look like in the future? 

ENERGY TIMES: What about EVs?

EARLEY: We have a proposal to install 25,000 charging stations on our system. That ought to be part of the design requirements of any circuit.  In the past, one of the design requirements was that you had to have a certain number of voltage regulators, capacitors, and transformers. We think you ought to have the charging stations in the system.

ENERGY TIMES: How are your smart grid assets helping PG&E?

​EARLEY: We were one of the first if not THE first utility to have virtually 100 percent coverage with smart meters.  The real advantage has been the insights it gives us into our system. In the old days, we didn’t know a customer was out until a customer called us up. Today, we just ping our smart meters and they will tell us whether they’re on or off.  So then we took that information and installed automated switching devices.  When there is an outage, the meters tell the system ‘I’m out’, and then the computers decide which switches to open and close. You can take a 1,000-customer outage down to a 100-customer outage in a matter of minutes, and then you roll repair trucks to fix the problem for the last 100.

ENERGY TIMES: How is PG&E workforce meeting the many new challenges ahead, as well as serious challenges you have been dealing with in recent years?

EARLEY: I’ve got a great team of people that have come together and are really starting to drive operational success.  One of the things I said when I first got there is we have got to focus on back to basics, supplying great electricity and gas service to our customers.  In the last year we’ve had some great milestone. We have had record reliability on our electric system. We’ve reduced the normal backlog of gas leaks on our gas system to where they’re almost gone away. We had a backlog of 12,000 leaks, and these are the small leaks you don’t have to fix right away. The end of last year, we were under 100 if I remember correctly.  That has taken a complete rethinking of how we manage the system.  We’ve put in a state of the art gas control system so we have much better operational knowledge of what our gas system looks like. We’ve just completed the first of three electric distribution control centers.  We’ve changed a pretty mediocre operational system into one that is really starting to be top line.  We’re not where we need to be yet, but that really feels good. 

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