State-owned public power utility Santee Cooper (also known as the South Carolina Public Service Authority) is an essential community development partner that provides generation, transmission, and distribution services directly to more than 200,000 residential and commercial customers. The vertically integrated utility also serves wholesale customers across a large portion of South Carolina.
Santee Cooper needed to find a way to extract additional layers of operational efficiency and maintain or improve system integrity. The scope of reliability planning continues to evolve as utilities expand from traditional physical network infrastructure priorities to a growing pool of edge technologies, from smart meters to IoT sensors and customers’ home energy devices.
“Being an electric utility in South Carolina presents many challenges when it comes to service reliability,” said Dom Maddalone, Chief Information Officer, Santee Cooper. “From tropical storms and hurricanes, to flooding and tornadoes, problems can regularly arise. Santee Cooper prides itself on maintaining a strong reliability standard regardless of what comes their way and technology is key in helping us do so.”
Santee Cooper ranked first in grid reliability compared to investor-owned utilities in South Carolina and 9th among 475 utilities and cooperatives (or in the top 2%) nationally, according to 2020 data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
By heavily focusing on the success of the communities it serves, Santee Cooper is also leading a green energy transformation across their dynamic energy portfolio. Since 2001, the utility has focused on helping customers increase their energy efficiency through their Reduce the Use and EmpowerSC programs. On the generation side, the initiatives extend beyond traditional generation plants to include more than 710 MWs of contracted and online solar power, 29 MW of landfill gas generation, 74 MW of biomass generation (aligned well to the state’s significant forestry industry), early wind energy projects, and their original hydropower facilities (with 142 MWs capacity) that date back to Santee Cooper’s 1934 origins.
Mindful of its energy diversity, Santee Cooper decided to launch a smart metering program and mesh network as fundamental components of a connected, customer-centric grid. “This strategy was essential to our goals of building a stronger network to support customers’ increased use of technology and the energy that technology uses,” said Maddalone. “To use electricity more efficiently and economically, our customers need to have more insight into how they use electricity and what it costs. Advanced meters provide benefits like daily usage data, outage information, and lower costs.”
A factor for Santee Cooper included selecting a system that would provide vital reliability upgrades through enhanced outage management performance. The utility also had to install a mesh network to alert them of problems with equipment before or at the exact time as a problem. This would allow Santee Cooper to get ahead of outages or be able to restore them even faster. Additionally, they wanted a system that could flexibly scale to support future priorities such as network resource management and customer service initiatives.
“To manage and get value from the massive data sets that come with a smart, connected network, Santee Cooper turned to a cloud-based meter solution,” said Maddalone. “By doing so, we bypassed traditional on-premises MDM (Meter Data Management) installations in favor of a SaaS offering designed to flexibly scale with a rollout of 200,000 smart meters.”
By selecting a new cloud service, Santee Cooper decision makers knew they would have an advanced, always-up-to-date metering platform. System benefits included access to the latest features, enhancements and security patches through regular updates, meaning they never need to update their MDM again. Device management ensures meter and devices are inventoried, managed and integrated into workflows, which will be particularly helpful as distributed energy resources (DERs) expand.
With their SaaS MDMS, Santee Cooper will also be able to reduce the IT burden of their data-intensive, mission critical system, freeing those resources to focus on business innovation and support.
An Unexpected Interruption
When March 2020 rolled around, Santee Cooper had to rethink how it needed to work during the pandemic. The smart meter deployment team, consisting of meter readers, meter installers and meter technicians, was no exception. They couldn’t have stayed on target to hit their milestones without this dedication to customers.
Although they work separately from other employees much of the time, the team members had to make changes to keep the project moving and on track. To help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, team members had to change their schedules so they weren’t all in the office at the same time. They also were on high alert and cognizant of their surroundings when they were physically changing out meters at customer locations to avoid any close contact with others. Safety suddenly meant something more than it did a few months before.
“It was incredibly important to us to keep working toward the goal of installing smart meters in order to provide customers with this important, updated technology,” said Maddalone. “We knew the new tech would help maintain excellent, reliable service and keep customers' bills accurate, among other things.”
The project’s efficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the utility and its partners working together over web conferencing to deliver a successful virtual go-live, demonstrated the potential of SaaS to improve reliability in times of crisis. As a result, IT teams and end users can remotely manage, support, and use solutions without being on site.
While Santee Cooper originally planned to upgrade all meters by 2023, the smart meter rollout is now complete, with more than 196,000 AMI meters successfully installed. The new SaaS metering solution is already delivering additional reliability outcomes. Santee Cooper recently completed an integration with its outage management system, which will leverage meter data to make recovery after an outage event faster and more precise.
“With these upgrades, the advantages Santee Cooper is seeing are many,” said Maddalone. “For example, we are getting notification of outages without the customer being at home, and we are able to get electricity restored in some cases before customers are even aware they had an outage. From a security standpoint, we are able to find tampering issues faster. The privacy of customers’ electric usage data is protected and will remain private with advanced meters.”
They also are finding intermittent problems faster. As a result, Santee Cooper can redirect a customer to get an electrician if it appears likely to be a customer issue based on viewing the analog readings. The utility is now looking ahead at the potential of meter data to enhance reliability for theft detection, integrating DERs, distribution management, customer-facing programs, and more.
Information lifecycle features now help Santee Cooper manage the massive data sets as their metering program advances, while a smart grid gateway ensures the utility can collect, clean and process data from all meter types and vendors as their program expands. Native billing integration between the smart meter service and Santee Cooper’s current customer care and billing system is resulting in seamless, successful billing on day one after go-live. Additional cloud benefits include robust cybersecurity, easy scalability, data redundancy, development/test/live environments, with built-in autonomous databases and high-performing hardware.
“The value proposition fits well with Santee Cooper’s strategic technology roadmap, enabling us to remain agile as our metering program and energy grid evolves,” said Maddalone. “We have always had a strong sense of customer service. The more capabilities and features we can provide—these seem to appear first in the cloud—the better off our customers will be.”
Dan Byrnes is senior vice president of Product Development for the Oracle Utilities Global Business Unit. He is an Oracle veteran who came to the company from PeopleSoft, where he was responsible for the Product Management of CRM across Communications, Media, and Utilities. Prior to joining the Oracle Utilities Global Business Unit, Dan spent five years responsible for Industry Product Strategy across Oracle eBusiness, PeopleSoft, JDE, Siebel, Business Intelligence and Integration.