Introducing smart grids to Canada

9 min read

Powering ahead: Canada could soon become the home of one of the world’s most fully realised smart grids. What lessons can the UK learn from this?

The rugged landscape of Canada might not seem like the obvious place to look for cutting-edge technology. But the combination of vast natural resources, large wealthy cities and sparsely populated wilderness presents challenges when it comes to the country’s energy infrastructure. And the extensive planning and focus on innovation that the province of Ontario is putting into dealing with these issues is helping it build one of the world’s most fully realised smart grids.

The smart grid has long been heralded as a key solution to our energy problems, enabling homes and businesses to generate their own power on a wide scale while cutting electricity usage. Defining exactly what a smart grid is and outlining the technologies it comprises is more of a challenge. Although the UK has its own plans for intelligent transmission, Ontario’s success in rolling out new technology (with three million smart meters already installed in homes and businesses) offers both a glimpse of the near future and a test bed for exciting developments.

Hydro One and IBM are working together on smart grid developments

‘Smart grid, despite the clever marketing term, is simply about modernising city infrastructure,’ said Ken Nakahara, senior manager of smart grid and network policy at the Ontario Ministry of Energy. ‘[It is] an intelligence and communications network that interacts with the traditional grid.’ The concept extends beyond the transmission grid itself; in practice it means using sensors, software, mobile and internet technology, as well as market incentives and public education, to better monitor and control energy generation, transmission and consumption.

‘It also means different things depending on where you are,’ said Siemens’ smart grid solutions manager, Dr Vincent Thornley. ‘In the US it’s about security of supply; in developing countries it’s about delivering energy to people who don’t currently have it; and in Europe it’s about building flexible, low-carbon networks.’ For Ontario, a smart grid provides a way of replacing ageing infrastructure while helping achieve the 28TWhr worth of annual energy savings needed to meet the target of eliminating coal and oil from the province’s electricity mix by 2030. It will also enable utility firms to deal with the growing amount of solar power, including North America’s largest solar farm and encouraged by a very generous feed-in tariff of up to 80¢ per kWhr, and other forms of intermittent and distributed generation (DG) — in other words, electricity not from traditional large power stations.

One of the key problems with these types of generation is that grid operators do not know exactly how much power will be supplied, or when. This is a particular issue for intermittent renewables because local distribution networks simply were not designed for large injections of power and can only accept as much DG as can be used at minimum load times for fear of overloading the system.

For the last six months, Ontario’s transmission and rural distribution company Hydro One has been working with IBM on a DG analytics pilot scheme with 20 customers who have roof-mounted solar modules. ‘The objective here is to increase the amount of green generation or DG connected to the network while still maintaining reliability and safety,’ said IBM smart grid leader Bruce Orloff. By feeding data from smart meters already installed in people’s homes into IBM’s software, Hydro One can better predict how much power it needs in near-real-time and send a signal to the meters to turn off the DG if it is in danger of overloading the grid. This means more DG can be added to the network in the fi rst place; so far, the company has been able to bring half the backlog of potential DG online, according to Orloff.

Smart energy technology cut costs

Managing new forms of generation is just one role of the smart grid, and the potential for distribution companies to improve and modernise their operations is extensive. ‘Our transmission system is smart: we can view the health of the system; we operate remotely on the system,’ said Dave Watts, Hydro One’s smart meter communications lead. ‘Our distribution system is dumb. We don’t know what’s happening on it until we’re at the side of the road looking at a fallen piece of equipment.’

Since mid-2010, Hydro One has been working with GE, IBM and IT company Telvent to design and build a trial advanced distribution system (ADS) in Owen Sound, a small town on the shores of Lake Huron. Due to go live later this year, it will enable the organisation to experiment with new technologies and plan for full smart grid roll-out in a similar way to several projects planned by UK distribution companies (see box).

As Hydro One describes it, an ADS contains four main elements: data collected by smart meters and other devices along the grid; a distribution management system and other software to process the data; a communications network; and technology to automate the running of grid equipment. Hydro One expects the full refurbishment of the grid with all these components to take between 10 and 20 years. But another Ontario distribution company, Power Stream, has already been running elements of its ADS for more than a year, providing the opportunity to see the benefits of the smart grid today.

‘In 2011, our 335,000 customers experienced [on average] one outage that lasted one hour,’ said John McClean, Power Stream’s vice-president of operations. ‘We’re aiming for about seven to 10 minutes of interruption time throughout the whole year.’ One of the key ways the company will do this is through what some refer to as the ultimate goal of network automation: a self-healing grid. This means that if equipment fails or goes down during a storm or accident, a control system will detect the fault, reroute power around it and despatch a repair team to the exact site of the problem, all with minimal human intervention. This means fewer customers are affected by blackouts and those that are have their power restored more quickly — partly because they’re not waiting for someone to drive around looking for the fault.

Smart grid, despite the clever marketing term, is simply about modernising city infrastructure

Central to a self-healing grid is a piece of software known as a failure detection, isolation and recovery (FDIR) system, which automates the turned off for maintenance. ‘Before the FDIR we relied on our system controllers to take actions,’ said McClean. ‘They would have to read through all the incoming information and figure out what was relevant to make the right operating decision. If we get the right information from the field, the FDIR can perform that function and, we believe, in a quicker fashion.’ Human operators still have final approval over the solution the computer comes up with but the FDIR allows them to visualise where the problem is and what parts of the network are affected using a live map of all the equipment on the grid.

Good line: a self-healing grid would be able to detect faults and reroute power quickly if equipment fails

Another piece of software called an outage management system (OMS) allows them to see exactly which houses have lost power, enabling Power Stream to prioritise resources to the worst-hit areas and record exactly what has happened to each customer. And with all these new data and processes to manage, the company needed to upgrade its supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. ‘The SCADA now needs to interface with a number of other systems and handle incoming data from different sources. Some of that may not be real time but helps to reinforce the decision-making process,’ said Young Ngo, vice-president of Survalent Technology, the Ontario-based company that provided all of Power Stream’s smart grid software.

To gather all this information, distribution companies need digital fault indicators, which use algorithms to explain the nature of the problem and provide precise location data, as well as a secure, reliable way of communicating said data. Power Stream is using the long-range radio network that it created to transmit data from all its smart meters. But Hydro One is building a separate network based on WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) — one of the standards being used to provide high-speed mobile internet services. Finally, substations are being equipped with intelligent devices to remotely control the flow of electricity, check the health of equipment and watch via video monitoring exactly what is happening without having to wait for someone to go into the field.

“Smart grid” is in some ways a misleading term, because the concept does not just refer to technologies that improve the way traditional utilities work. Through smart meters and related systems, but also through market incentives, consumers can participate in the management of the energy system, helping them to reduce electricity usage and save money. The most obvious example that Ontario has introduced is mandatory time-of-use tariffs, which mean electricity is more expensive during peak loads, encouraging consumers to reduce or shift their usage to other times.

But there are also more sophisticated tools that can help better match the supply and demand of electricity, a process known as grid balancing. Network managers, such as National Grid in the UK or independent system operators (ISOs) in North America, traditionally do this by turning on extra fossil-fuel power stations or releasing reservoir water through hydro generators. With intermittent renewable generation increasing, cheaper, more flexible, non-fossil-fuel balancing methods are needed. One option is dynamic demand response, which involves automatically turning on and off systems such as heating and ventilation, refrigeration and water treatment belonging to commercial customers. This can cut or postpone energy use without affecting operations because the equipment does not need to be on all the time.

Trippy: the location of a defect is not always apparent

Although Ontario does not yet have the necessary hourly electricity market to make this work commercially, one company has developed the tools to make it possible on a large enough scale to have an impact on grid demand and has deployed them in parts of the US. (The UK has also started to make inroads in this area, with several companies starting to offer dynamic grid balancing services.) By aggregating the operations of equipment at multiple commercial and industrial clients, Enbala Power Networks can respond to signals from an ISO to help reduce demand on a second-by-second basis. By using dedicated software to talk directly to the control systems of equipment, no additional technology has to be installed and the equipment isn’t doing anything it wouldn’t without Enbala — it is just turning on and off at specific times.

Currently, these systems are not set up to work with domestic customers. ‘There’s nothing that means it wouldn’t work for a house,’ said Enbala’s chief executive officer, Ron Dizy. ‘It’s that the connection costs exceed the value of the flexibility you’d get from a typical house.’ However, it could work for large-scale residential buildings and, if home energy-management systems and smart appliances take off, could eventually become compatible with individual homes. Power Stream is conducting a trial with demand reduction in around 1,700 customers’ homes, as well as participating in a study with Israeli firm Better Place of how electric-vehicle batteries could provide storage for grid balancing.

In the future we could see smart homes not only generating their own power but storing it on a daily and seasonal basis while reducing and shifting their energy usage to match. These are just some examples of how the smart grid will continue to develop as technology becomes more sophisticated. Unlike wires and pylons, which are only replaced every few decades, smart grid software can be continually upgraded.

Many in the industry view self-healing grids as the ultimate goal of network automation

To justify the spending needed to make this happen (C$390m [£246m] annually over the next five years in Ontario) requires convincing consumers, companies and politicians that it will bring value while keeping energy supplies and personal data secure. Ontario’s goal is to reduce peak demand by 7,100MW by 2030, leading to an annual emissions reduction of up to 11 megatonnes — the equivalent of taking 2.4 million homes off the grid. Statistics such as these should go some way to winning people over.


Innovative power companies are leading the UK’s smart grid technology efforts

The UK isn’t far behind Ontario in developing and trialling smart grid technology and methods. The government, through regulator Ofgem, has set up a £500m Low Carbon Networks fund to support utility companies in their efforts. Western Power Distribution is one of the most active companies, with plans to trial remote voltage monitoring and control systems, distributed generation improvement, demand management, home DC networks, dedicated communications channels and self-healing grid technology.

One of the most prominent schemes is “Low Carbon London” run by UK Power Networks, which is trialling a range of ideas from heat pumps to demand-response contracts, and has recently completed a test of an automated low-voltage network in the capital. Another notable project is Electricity North West’s ”Capacity to Customers”, which aims to free up back-up network capacity in preparation for public electric-vehicle charging sites by offering contracts that include an acceptance of limited annual outages in return for a smaller grid connection fee.

Several UK companies are also helping to advance areas such as dynamic demand response and distributed generation. Open Energi (formerly RLtec) last year signed up the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain to its demand reduction aggregating services. Open Energi’s system works by monitoring the frequency of power transmission instead of waiting for instructions from National Grid. Meanwhile, Smarter Grid Solutions has already helped increase wind power in Orkney with its network management software.


Private distribution organisations are key to pushing smart grid technology forward

Ontario’s energy sector is structured differently to that of the UK and other more fully deregulated countries. Although there is an electricity market with private distribution organisations, state-owned companies control most of the power generation and the transmission network, while many of the larger distribution companies are municipally owned. In a conservative industry, government-backed utility companies can provide the confidence needed to ensure high-level investment in smart grid technology. Legislation mandating the introduction of time-of-use electricity tariffs and for utilities to include smart grid plans in their licence applications has helped the sector advance.

In the UK, the government has no plans to legislate to create a smart grid and has taken more of an encouragement role, mainly by providing money for research. This has created a real will among network operators to try new things and given technology companies the chance to prove their inventions, according to Dr Bob Currie, co-founder of Smarter Grid Solutions. ‘One of the benefits is that we have reference sites for our technology,’ he said. ‘We’re experienced in actually doing what we’re talking about.’ And as Ken Nakahara from the Ontario Energy Ministry pointed out, involving private companies ‘does foster a lot more innovation rather than having a behemoth that does things maybe in a more strategic way but without the breadth of activity’.