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Old Idea, New Technologies

Ben Gilbert
Con.Web, March 27, 2003

Northwest Technology Companies Target Utility Voltage Control

Energy conservation is normally considered an end-user phenomenon, achieved through energy-conscious practices or energy-saving equipment in homes and businesses.

But the Northwest may become an incubator for resurrecting an old energy conservation idea with new technologies that can be applied from the meter out to the utility system.

Conservation voltage reduction (CVR) consists of power grid practices and technologies with which a utility can manage demand by lowering delivered voltage.

Among Northwest firms active in CVR, MicroPlanet, a Seattle-area start-up company, has hired three manufacturers and set up an international sales network within the last month. PCS UtiliData of Spokane has modified its grid communications and control technology for remote voltage regulation, and over the last year has deployed two systems in two Northwest utilities.

The two firms take very different approaches to controlling voltage on a wide scale, but both hope for a boost from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance's board approval in late January of a $2.8 million market transformation effort to promote conservation voltage regulation (see Con.WEB, Feb. 27, 2003 ).

Energy savings achieved using CVR vary depending on the utility system and the customer. In various tests of CVR, Snohomish County PUD has averaged between 0.6 percent and 0.7 percent energy savings for every 1 percent in average voltage drop. CVR can also improve system reliability.

Voltage Issues
Because voltage fluctuates under different loads and grid conditions, national standards require utilities to operate within a safe margin of 114 volts to 126 volts.

Robert Fletcher, a chief engineer at Snohomish PUD who has been working with voltage regulation technologies for the past decade, told Con.WEB most equipment and appliances operate more efficiently at lower voltages, as long as the voltage doesn't drop too low to power them. Loads such as light bulbs last longer if operated below their rated voltage. But most utilities keep the voltage relatively high--around 123 or 124 volts--to provide a buffer for sags and dips.

CVR tests started in the 1980s but never made a big impact, Fletcher said. Utilities worried about the consequences of lowering voltage too far and losing stability, and some engineers held that certain loads would draw more electron flow at lower voltage levels. Engineering and capital costs to deploy CVR equipment to the grid were high, and the idea of lost revenue from decreased throughput can make utility managers who are unfamiliar with CVR uncomfortable. But CVR experts say reduced energy demand and rate adjustments that reflect a change in the system with the installed technology can eliminate any financial losses.

Now the idea is starting to resurface, partially because technology has improved as more and different approaches have been tested, and because the energy crisis raised utility concerns over congestion, outages and grid stability. Several Northwest technology companies and utilities are now collaborating and successfully demonstrating more advanced CVR technologies.

MicroPlanet founder Greg Wiegand was developing lighting equipment for movie sets in the mid-1990s and simply trying to quiet buzzing dimmers, when he built a miniature transformer with much broader applications.

After consulting with Fletcher he developed the Home Voltage Regulator and Enterprise Voltage Regulator for small businesses that MicroPlanet began marketing this year. Acting as an inverter to stabilize and lower incoming voltage, the basic technology is a little box housing a programmable personal computer board that controls a small transformer. Plugged into a power customer's meter, the devices can stabilize voltage at lower levels, thereby reducing energy consumption.

The Northwest is a strategically good location for MicroPlanet, said company spokesman Robert Kahn. "If you start a product like this in the Northwest and it catches on here ... you're going to have a head of steam coming out with a national marketing program," he said. "People identify the Northwest with high technology and environmental values. A Northwest point of origin is a good thing."

MicroPlanet is looking beyond the local market, however, and working on its first international sale. Scottish Power engineers are testing modified versions of two of the devices as they search for a way to protect some 2,000 rural customers in the United Kingdom from voltage fluctuations when the utility replaces some nuclear capacity with numerous dispersed rural wind projects. If Scottish engineers are satisfied, MicroPlanet hopes a full deployment will mark the company's first major sale. The Alliance project may also mean a deployment of about 500 units, and increased exposure for the technology. In the last month, MicroPlanet has put three manufacturers on standby for orders.

MicroPlanet also has set up a sales network in 30 states and 21 countries to market to utilities, homebuilders and local governments. Partnering and co-marketing with utilities on a large scale is the main route MicroPlanet plans to pursue, because both consumers and energy providers stand to benefit. Consumers save money on energy bills and wear and tear, while utilities benefit from stabilized voltage levels, and can delve into running the distribution grid at a lower average voltage. But the devices currently run $1,150 apiece. The company expects 10 percent of utility customers could pay that back with savings in two years, but chief executive Brian Reidy said the company is aiming for a eventual price of between $300 and $500.

For MicroPlanet, a PC and transformer at the meter could allow the devices to become intelligent, distributed communications ports that let loads converse with grid operators and distributed generators. Reidy said this has been envisioned as a potential product, but basic voltage regulation was chosen for early commercialization because utilities will find it useful regardless of whether distributed generation becomes more prevalent.

Other CVR Approaches
Modifying voltage at the meter is just one method of implementing CVR. Fletcher said other grid enhancements include putting more regulators on distribution lines, adding more capacitors and upgrading lines. These strategies may be cheaper than putting a device on every meter, but many utilities may lack the engineering budget, capabilities or expertise, he said.

Spokane-based PCS UtiliData has designed a system to control voltage using the technology of a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system. PCS UtiliData has made programmable control systems since 1983, focusing on utilities since the mid-1990s. But when several big SCADA system contracts were cancelled or put on hold during the energy crisis, president Tom Wilson said, the company needed to find ways to respond to market needs.

At conferences and in conversations, Wilson began to see and hear more utility executives interested in technologies to control voltage. The company figured out a way to use its communications and programmable logic control systems to monitor end-of-line voltage and hold it constant by adjusting source voltage at the substation. The system also monitors power flow on the distribution lines "to see if power is actually going down as we lower voltage."

Inland Power & Light Co., an eastern Washington/northern Idaho cooperative, installed the first system on a substation five miles from the PCS UtiliData office in April. The $250,000 system should lower the voltage to about 2,000 customers. Based on energy use data and an estimated voltage reduction averaging 4 percent, Inland Power is estimated to save almost 100,000 kilowatt-hours per year with the system. Utilities served by Bonneville Power Administration can also use the system to apply for credits in BPA's conservation/renewables wholesale rate discount program. BPA supported a second installation on three substations in Clatskanie People's Utility District in Oregon last fall. PCS UtiliData also hopes to benefit from the Alliance program, and is negotiating with several U.S. and Canadian utilities and a military base.

The biggest savings will be seen in dense load centers in urban or suburban areas, with commercial and residential customers rather than industrial users, Wilson said. The biggest utility concern, however, especially for investor-owned utilities, is lost revenue from lower energy use. Because most of the savings go to the customer, Wilson believes utilities should be allowed to incorporate the impacts into their rate structure. "It's OK to not get the revenue for energy that's not being used, but there are also operations and maintenance needs to be taken care of."

CVR companies also say the benefits of lowering and controlling voltage on the system go beyond energy conservation. Along with the technology to lower voltage comes the ability to control it--and to keep it from dropping or sagging too far during grid problems, improving stability.

Related Sites:
PCS UtiliData
Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

Ben Gilbert
Old Idea, New Technologies
Con.Web - March 27, 2003

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