Five years ago, NB Power and Siemens announced a joint effort to test and deploy real-world smart grid solutions. NB Power, the primary electrical utility in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, wanted to lead the transformation under way in the utility sector. That vision included long-term goals: to bolster system-wide reliability, add more variable renewable energy to the grid, reduce peak winter demand, and build an advanced smart grid.
New Brunswick becomes a smart grid innovation hub
In July 2012, utility NB Power, in New Brunswick, and Siemens launched a partnership based on a ten-year smart grid roadmap. At the halfway mark, Siemens customer magazine checks in with NB Power for an update.
In each case, NB Power knew that emerging technologies could advance the transformation and empower customers to become more active participants in the energy system. NB Power looked to Siemens’ Smart Grid Energy Business Advisory team for its expertise in the digital grid space. Over the course of the partnership, NB Power and Siemens intend to build Canada’s first fully integrated smart grid that will give operators real-time visibility into energy supply and demand, and give customers more information and control over their energy use.
Winter peak demand reduction with smart thermostats
A demonstration of the power of the partnership at work was a winter peak demand reduction trial conducted in winter 2016. NB Power, together with Siemens and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), installed digital devices, including smart thermostats, in 600 New Brunswick homes. NB Power sent commands to the devices in homes of participating customers ahead of peak events, typically on the coldest mornings in January and February, when heating loads spike.
“On those peak cold days, we partnered with our customers to preheat their homes by a couple of degrees before they got up, and then as they went about their morning routine during peak hours, we backed off the temperature by a degree or two to reduce the demand requirements on our system,” said Keith Cronkhite, Senior Vice President, Business Development & Strategic Planning, NB Power. “It proved to be a very rewarding experience. We demonstrated that the technology works and our surveys showed us that if anything customer satisfaction actually improved because of the way we shaped the program.”
“We were able to demonstrate that that technology is capable of providing value-added service to our customers, as well as a benefit to the utility as far as load-shifting is concerned. That to me was one of the big wins over the last couple of years,” he added.
Cronkhite said NB Power customers seem open to a more flexible, dynamic relationship, in part because the utility is viewed as a trusted partner. NB Power has used Oracle Utilities’ Opower behavioral tools, including home energy reports, to engage and empower customers, and it convened focus groups when developing new programs to solicit feedback on customer interests and concerns. “Customers are becoming more engaged,” said Cronkhite. “We’re finding that they’re very receptive, while at the same time a little bit skeptical and concerned about cybersecurity.”
Brent Staeben, NB Power’s Director of Business Development, said the utility must also recognize that not only does it have many distinct types of customers, but those customers have different values and preferences. “We’re going to have to do something that is really new in the Canadian utility industry, which is to design programs providing benefits for specific customer groups, knowing that other people are going to be completely uninterested. For a publicly owned utility like ours, that’s going to be very different,” he said.
Key to NB Power’s technology modernization effort was a communications system upgrade. The utility updated its microwave communications capabilities, which will provide two-way communications between NB Power and its commercial and industrial customers and facilitate the system-wide rollout of smart meters. “Communication is absolutely the backbone of optimizing the smart grid on a go-forward basis and for grid modernization,” said Cronkhite.
Smart Grid Innovation Network
Another focus of the NB Power-Siemens collaboration is the Smart Grid Innovation Network (SGIN), which launched in January 2016. “The intention was to leverage the expertise and the innovation on the ground here with NB Power, Siemens, and the University of New Brunswick (UNB),” said Brent Staeben. Sixteen companies have already been supported via the network – everything from R&D at UNB, to testing in the Siemens lab, to webinars on OpenADR protocol.
In April 2017, SGIN convened a conference that brought together digital grid thought leaders from across North America. The conference sold out, and has already yielded follow-up successes. Shift Energy, a local energy management start-up, connected with California-based Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) to test its Energy Optimization Software (EOS) for commercial buildings. SGIN enables the partners to bring companies in and expose them to the deep knowledge and experience of the NB Power, Siemens, and UNB teams.
Thus far SGIN has focused on the tech side of smart grid solutions, including giving start-ups a unique opportunity to test technologies, said Staeben. But the provincial government has encouraged the partners to leverage their work as an economic development tool, too. SGIN is exploring expanding its mission to include an industry-promoting role, providing business intelligence to digital grid companies looking to launch or expand in Canada, elsewhere in North America, or abroad.
A business model for the future
With help from Siemens, NB Power has reached out to Southern California Gas Company, Tucson Electric Power, and other utilities to share information and trade best practices. It is also closely watching other utility transformation efforts, such as the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) process in New York State, and trials of potentially game-changing new technologies like utility blockchain applications.
“As we look forward to the modernization of our business, we certainly recognize that the old model has to change. We’ve known that for a long time. That’s why we’re on this journey,” said Keith Cronkhite.
He went on, “We need the appropriate runway or time to make the right decisions at the right time.” The load-shifting and grid modernization goals NB Power established with Siemens cover a 25-year time horizon. “It really takes that much time for that infrastructure to turn over, for that ability to hit broader deployment within the province with our customers.”
All participants agree the push to unleash the potential of the smart grid is unlocking unforeseen benefits. The smart thermostat pilot, and others such as commercial & industrial load-shifting pilots that utilize Siemens virtual power plant software, were not envisioned before NB Power and Siemens launched their collaboration. “With this kind of arrangement we have, and the momentum we’re building, I’m confident there are things we haven’t even thought of yet that we’re going to be utilizing and embracing in the next three or four years,” said Cronkhite.