Silicon Valley Power Case Study: Wireless Broadband Benefits Smart Grid, More

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By Larry Owens, Silicon Valley Power

Silicon Valley Power (SVP), a municipal power and water utility in Santa Clara, Calif., provides services to 52,000 power and 27,000 water customers. Its 19.3-square-mile service territory in the heart of Silicon Valley encompasses many large Fortune 500 companies, including Applied Materials Inc., Microsoft Corp., Texas Instruments Inc., Nvidia Corp., Owens Corning, Oracle Corp. and Yahoo Inc.

Starting as early as the 1990s, SVP began piloting the reading of electric meters via a fixed 700-megahertz radio network with now-defunct Whisper Communications. After some early shortfalls, it wasn't until 15 years later SVP began developing its smart grid strategy and identified advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) as the first application. AMI promised to improve customer service by:

  • Increasing distribution system reliability;
  • Reducing time to detection and pinpointing outage locations, speeding service recovery;
  • Increasing meter-reading accuracy;
  • Providing more timely access to metering data (especially important in planning for industrial customers);
  • Offering remote lock and unlock service; and
  • Reducing operational costs.

Wireless Network—A Critical Smart Grid Element

Next, SVP started investigating the types of solutions needed to build a smart grid. The utility quickly realized that a wireless network was critical and would serve as a field-area network (FAN) that spanned the entire service territory. With this goal, the utility began looking at which technologies might match the present-day needs.

SVP considered narrowband and quickly determined such a solution probably would work for AMI when limited to meter reading. The team then began thinking about what other smart grid applications it might want to consider and determined narrowband would not provide the bandwidth and performance to future-proof the investment. In considering what smart grid applications the utility might want in the future, it expanded the list of possibilities beyond AMI to include grid and asset monitoring, distribution automation, outage detection, security, mobile work force applications and disaster communications. The utility determined through many discussions a high-capacity, cost-effective wireless network that provided strong security, high reliability and scalability was needed. In addition, SVP decided a private network was best. High availability was key to this decision, as was the ability to control a private communications network. As many remember, in 1989 the San Francisco Bay Area was hit with a 7.1 earthquake. Over the two days it took to recover, public communication systems were inundated but the SVP private communication systems remained viable and effective.

Field-area Network Technology Evaluation, Findings

At the time, several companies and technology choices were commercially available for creating a FAN. The utility evaluated Wi-Fi and WiMax technologies. To evaluate Wi-Fi, it purchased an existing network that already was installed around downtown Santa Clara from a company that was going out of business (its business model was an advertising-funded network that was unsuccessful). SVP used the network to conduct testing for AMI and opened a separate channel to provide the community with free Wi-Fi access. The network served its purpose as a test bed, and when the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers selected Wi-Fi as its smart appliance standard, SVP decided that Wi-Fi would remain a persistent standard. They were also convinced that metro-scale Wi-Fi could be used for smart grid applications and would help improve operational efficiency and customer service. SVP executives also determined the inexpensive Wi-Fi network they had purchased did not meet all of their needs: It did not have citywide coverage; the network nodes did not have battery backup; and the Wi-Fi equipment vendor was absorbed by another company.

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SVP MeterConnect is Born

SVP launched SVP MeterConnect in 2008 and funded the program as part of the utility's infrastructure improvement initiative. The program encompassed:

  • A citywide wireless FAN using 802.11 Wi-Fi standards;
  • AMI meters that replaced 52,000 power and 27,000 water meters;
  • A meter data management system (MDMS); and
  • Upgrades to the customer information system used for billing.

SVP outlined the economic justification and benefits for the project as:

  • Operational efficiencies: reduced operating costs over a range of utility applications.
  • Revenue protection: reduced loss from illegal activities, improved meter-reading accuracy, reduced cost for lock and unlock service.
  • Customer service improvements: increasing billing accuracy, more up-to-date access to usage data, allowing for early problem detection, faster awareness and response to power outages.
  • Environmental and social benefits: conservation, energy efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved safety for SVP field personnel.

SVP issued a public request for proposal (RFP) in July 2009 for all the elements required for SVP MeterConnect, including the wireless FAN. The requirements for the FAN identified based on SVP's research and experience were:

  • Coverage: contiguous citywide wireless network coverage;
  • Peak performance: at least 95 percent of routers capable of delivering a minimum of 3 Mbps bidirectional peak throughput plus 100 percent of routers capable of 1 Mbps bidirectional simultaneous peak throughput;
  • Network availability: Greater than 99.9 percent; and
  • Security: AMI-SEC system security requirements: NERC CIP 002-009, NIST Special Publication (SP) 800-53, IST SP 800-82.

SVP received and evaluated five FAN vendors that responded to the RFP. Elster and Tropos teamed up for a combination that fit SVP's needs and supplied the AMI system and Wi-Fi wireless mesh for the FAN, respectively. Tropos (now a part of the ABB family) stood out above the rest of the products evaluated. As a plus, the company had a proven record in deploying multiuse networks for utilities and municipalities.

Rollout Plans and Results

Before the rollout, SVP communicated its smart grid plans to customers and conducted a survey, which was completed in 2010. The goal was to identify the advantages customers expected to realize from smart grid applications, such as AMI, and to highlight areas of concern where more education or information might be necessary. The survey results showed that two-thirds of SVP's customers were supportive of the smart grid ideas. However, an even higher value to them was free outdoor Wi-Fi access – the first test network was more popular than SVP expected!

The SVP team continued community-outreach efforts by using public meetings and written communications about wireless networks, AMI meters, security, billing, and other topics. The utility also launched a website to answer common questions received from customers and updated it on an ongoing basis. It learned that a proactive public relations campaign to educate customers throughout the planning and implementation process is critical to a successful rollout.

SVP MeterConnect is being rolled out in three phases:

  • Phase 1 (completed spring 2013): FAN, AMI pilot, public Wi-Fi;
  • Phase 2 (began fall 2013): 2,000 industrial and 15,000 commercial and residential AMI; and
  • Phase 3 (12-24 months after completion of Phase 2): completion of residential AMI.

SVP's smart grid team selected to roll out the FAN first based on Tropos Networks' mesh product for two reasons. First, the territorywide network is a foundation for successfully operating all the smart grid applications planned. Second, based on the strong feedback from the community, SVP wanted to deliver free Wi-Fi to residents immediately. SVP deployed the free Wi-Fi on a separate channel and reserved the other 15 separate channels for utility applications to ensure security and tightly managed quality of service. With the free Wi-Fi, the goals were not to replace home and business broadband but rather to support light use across town. The decision was also made to limit bandwidth to 2 Mbps per user and supported outdoor use only.

Santa Clara is the first city in the nation to leverage its utility AMI network to provide free outdoor Wi-Fi citywide. Feedback from the community has been positive, and the economic development department highlights its availability. The network averages some 500 users per hour and peaks at more than 5,000 users per day.

The FAN covers Santa Clara. More than 600 Tropos Wi-Fi access nodes are mounted on city-owned assets, including light and power poles, traffic safety lamps and buildings. This includes 58 gateways all connected to city fiber. SVP designed the network for a maximum of three hops from any node to a gateway. This was done to achieve performance and ensure redundant paths were available if a node should fail. All radios are equipped with four to six hours of battery backup to provide communications during widespread events. The utility had specified the network capacity be 3 Mbps, but it delivers substantially more capacity at 10-12 Mbps in most areas. When AMI meters are installed in 2014, electricity and water usage information sent across the network will be highly encrypted. Security on this part of the system mimics that of banking and national defense institutions.

A Multiuse FAN

The Tropos FAN is a cost-effective foundation for deployment of many applications that will improve the reliability and quality of services that provide power and water to customers. In addition to using the network for public access and AMI backhaul, the SVP billing department field staff uses the network to connect their iPads to a Web-based interface to the billing system. They can perform many services from the field, such as:

  • Lock and unlock services (move-in and move-out), including meter reads;
  • Disconnecting for nonpayment;
  • Updating billing information and notes for meter location or identifying access issues such as "new dog;"
  • Tampering—pictures and video records; and
  • Emailing to co-workers and connection to utility and city websites when needed.

SVP is considering additional electric utility applications that would leverage the FAN, including distribution monitoring, security monitoring, remote fault-current indicators, capacitor bank switching, outage detection, asset management and power-loss analytics. Water utility applications under consideration include remote meter reading, leak detection, usage profiles by areas of the city and supervisory control and data acquisition. The city's fire department is considering using the Wi-Fi network over its existing system to enable download of building or patient information while driving or communicating with other emergency service units in the field.

Larry Owens is the division manager of customer services and marketing at Silicon Valley Power. He has a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies and more than 20 years in the electric utility industry. Owens oversees SVP's marketing communications, key customer services, energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, dark fiber leasing and the development of online information products and services for customers. He is the sponsor and manager of SVP's MeterConnect program for smart grid technologies.

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