Modern utilities, whether it’s electricity, water or natural gas, are expected to be there when needed.
Utilities companies today face new challenges and need to adapt to a changing world, creating procedures to keep staff and customers safe and resources available.
The tools have changed. Technology offers new solutions, climate change brings new challenges and a pandemic changes business as usual to business as unusual.
“One thing we take very seriously is the responsibility we have to protect both our customers and our environment,” said Doug Cannon, CEO, NV Energy. “We are seeing changes in how utilities have to operate given climate change, and the effects that climate change have on our operating environment.”
Climate scientists see a correlation between climate change and the increasing number and size of wildfires. Because utility poles and electrical wires can spark and cause or worsen fires, in February 2020 NV Energy filed a Natural Disaster Protection Plan with the state. The plan was developed at the request of Senate Bill 329 and addresses how to respond to and mitigate wildfires, severe storms and other natural disaster risks in NV Energy’s service territory. NV Energy serves approximately 90 percent of the electric load in the state.
“We worked with the Legislature and other stakeholders including the IEBW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers], local fire organizations and others in the state,” said Cannon. The plan outlines actions the utility will take to ensure the system operates safely, with resilience and reliability, in the face of climate change.
Toward that end the utility is studying the effects of climate change, including increased monsoon activity in southern Nevada during late summer. It’s inspecting electrical poles and installing new poles that can stand up to Nevada winds and are more fire resistant. Equipment is being added to the system to respond to outages more quickly.
Other changes to the systems are designed to cause outages. One of the first wildfire prevention steps is vegetation management around power poles. But in the event of wildfire, the system can be shut down.
“We have developed a Public Safety Outage Management Plan. Hopefully it will never have to be deployed. But in the event that certain weather conditions are reached, low humidity, high winds, high temperature, low moisture in the ground or on fuels, where you have a high fire risk environment, we would actually proactively de-energize very limited areas on our system to reduce wildfire risk,” said Cannon. The system outages would be intentional, and temporary, and reimbursed to customers once weather conditions were modified. “We want to protect the forest and make sure we don’t have huge wildfire risks. We want to keep our customers safe.”
Wells Rural Electric Co. buys its power from Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency based in Portland. The electricity is generated by the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, which means Wells Electric is approximately 85 to 90 percent carbon free in terms of its power supply.
Wells has undertaken a specific resource investigation to explore the potential of community solar or rooftop solar for its customers. The investigation is to determine the capabilities, cost effectiveness and efficiency of other forms of energy available in the service territory.
“We want to see how they could end up complementing our substation power we have right now. We have a duty to call on those renewable energies,” said Clay Fitch, CEO, Wells Rural Electric Co. “We’re going to continue saying Wells Electric is in pursuit of only acquiring carbon free resources and if we can find them from our members or find them in our area, we’re interested in doing that.”
The Game Changer
Advances in technology are changing how utilities function. Artificial intelligence is starting to be used to troubleshoot systems, mitigating damage and preventing future damage. Climate change is leading to new discoveries, and there’s even a scenario where cows and their emissions can actually contribute to carbon neutral energy.
“Natural gas is a relatively clean source of energy and one of our new focuses over the past year has been to look further into acquiring what we call renewable natural gas,” said John Hester, CEO, Southwest Gas.
Natural gas is abundant. With technology, the current supply should last more than 100 years. In Nevada, approximately 70 percent of electricity generated uses natural gas.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, can be obtained from a variety of sources. Like cows, whose waste produces methane. So do sewer treatment plants and landfills.
“That methane either goes into the atmosphere, as is the case of a dairy farm, or in the case of a landfill, often it’s just vented into the atmosphere. It’s about 30 times more harmful to the upper atmosphere than carbon dioxide. On the other hand you have sewer treatment plants where the methane is collected and then flared off,” said Hester.
So now utilities companies around the country are learning to capture and scrub the methane free of components that shouldn’t enter the distribution system, then injecting the renewable natural gas into that distribution system.
“The net impact of that is you get a source of supply in your distribution system that is considered to be carbon neutral because, in the case of a sewer treatment plant the gas is going to be burned anyway. Now it’s going to be burned to cook meals, dry clothes and heat homes,” said Hester.
“Companies around the country are experimenting with using excess renewable electricity [when available] to perform hydrolysis on water. [This can] create a carbon neutral hydrogen energy source that can be either used to generate electricity later, when there isn’t sufficient renewable resources to meet electricity demand, or be included as part of the natural gas distribution supply system,” said Hester.
Everything utilities do requires human involvement, simply because of the business they’re in. But artificial intelligence and technology are changing what utilities can do without sending crews into the field.
Wells Rural Electric Co. is a cooperative, member-owned utility that serves most of Elko County, Eureka County and Tooele County in northwestern Utah. With a large rural service territory, the utility uses Advance Metering Infrastructure (AMI), an integrated system of smart meters that can communicate, allowing the utility to monitor remotely.
“We have a lot of devices at substations so we can monitor them from inside our operations and can control them and see things that are getting ready to happen,” said Fitch. “It gives us better information. It really is devices talking to each other.”
Using AMI, the utility can interrogate the system, expedite or increase efficiency of a crew in the field.
Technology can also increase efficiency for customers. Wells Electric uses a smart hub where members can log in and pay their bill, track their daily usage, watch their loads and take more control of their bill through the system.
Living in a desert means being constantly aware of water usage. Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is in the process of installing smart meters.
“The program allows us to track water usage in real time,” said John Entsminger, CEO, SNWA. “So if a customer has a leak, probably within the next five years we’ll have artificial intelligence that automatically generates a text message to that customer and tells them they have a leak on their property.”
NV Energy entered into a partnership with the Governor’s Office of Energy to develop the Nevada Electric Highway. In an attempt to encourage the use of electric vehicles, the program will develop highway charging stations to reduce range anxiety, where people are afraid of running out of charge before reaching their destination.
There’s also incentive programs for businesses that want to install charging infrastructure at their businesses, and special rates for customers who have electric vehicles and charge them during specific times of day.
Going to the Source
Historically Nevada was powered with coal generated electricity. That’s changing, and in December 2019, NV Energy retired its interest in the Navajo Generating plant, which marked the end of company-owned coal generation serving southern Nevada. The remaining coal generating plant in northern Nevada is set to be partially retired in 2021, and entirely retired in 2025. The changes have reduced carbon emissions from electrical generation by about 46 percent, said Cannon.
As coal plants close down, utilities turn to more renewable energy. NV Energy is looking at developing solar and has added approximately 2190 megawatts of new solar energy in the last few years. It’s also adding large-scale batteries associated with solar plants to allow energy to be stored.
Ninety percent of southern Nevada’s water comes from the Colorado River via Lake Mead, with 10 percent coming from the aquifer that underlies the Las Vegas Valley. SNWA recently completed integrated planning with its advisory committee, creating its 50 year resource plan to ensure the region’s water supply. Conservation plans were reviewed, and recommendations made for infrastructure projects to meet demands of area growth.
SNWA is entering an agreement with Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a regional water wholesaler for Coastal California.
“Over the next 10 years they’re going to be building a $10 billion wastewater reuse system, and so we’ve now signed a letter of intent with them for the water authority to participate in that project and in return for our financial investment in their infrastructure, they’ll leave a portion of their water resources in Lake Mead, so it’s the same source but additional water supplies for the community,” said Entsminger.
Conservation is always important in the desert, but not always automatic. “We always say conservation is a journey, not a destination,” said Entsminger. For customers from water-rich areas of the country, there’s an educational component.
Getting Hooked Up
The permitting process for new utilities customers is historically difficult. Now that Nevada’s seeing significant growth with commercial real estate projects and residential developments in both Northern and Southern Nevada, utilities companies are taking advantage of technology to add a DIY component to the permitting process.
“Historically for developers it’s a laborintensive process to get new service to a new subdivision or new development,” said Cannon. So NV Energy is launching a new website in 2020 to allow developers to make new applications online, track status and get details on what information they need to submit.
SNWA has also expanded digital online services for engineers and developers to submit plans and coordinate engineering reviews for new projects. “It’s much more efficient and obviously cuts down on the permitting review time and helps the development community keep things going,” said Entsminger.
Utilities in the Age of Pandemic
COVID-19 has forced companies to revamp the way they do business. For utilities it’s meant making changes both to keep customers and crews safe, and to keep the utilities on during the crisis.
“This has been one of the most challenging things we’ve had to do,” said Fitch. Wells Electric started their response March 10, keeping their three offices open for drive-up window payments only. The majority of employees were sent home, including line crews.
“We have a real responsibility to meet the reliability of the system,” said Fitch. “The worst thing that could happen during this time is for the power to go out and to have no real ability to restore it. So we’ve been keeping at least 75 percent of our resources in reserve at any given time.” Crews work together in the same team, and don’t mingle with other crews; while one crew is in the field, the others are at home, protected and available.
Wells Electric services Carlin, Wells and Wendover, among other areas. Those three distinct communities have diverse economic basis. Carlin’s economy is driven by mining, Wells is an agricultural area with tourism off I-80, and Wendover is casino-based. With the casinos closed for the duration of the pandemic, 70 to 80 percent of that community’s population has been laid off.
Wells Electric is a member owned cooperative, so everyone who gets power from them owns the company. “We’re sending out all kinds of messages: ‘If you need us, contact us. We want to work through this with you. This will end and we want to figure out a way to get us through this the best way we can for our members,’” said Fitch.
“Our customers have a lot of uncertainty around COVID-19 in their lives,” said Cannon. “We can be that one source of certainty – the lights are going to come on and they’re going to have comfort in their homes through the services gas and energy provide.”
With customers impacted by furloughs and layoffs, and many businesses having to shutter their storefronts, utilities companies across the board have stopped disconnections and are waiving late fees, working out deferred payments and payment plans for customers.
Southwest Gas employees are working from home and those in the field are supplied with personal protective equipment.
“The first step is making sure the natural gas distribution system is running well to serve those customers when they may be at home and not working their normal jobs,” said Hester.
“We obviously recognize there’s been a financial hit to a lot of folks in our community, and the last thing we can have is people that are sheltering in place or self-isolating and not having access to a reliable water supply,” said Entsminger. “So we’re not shutting anyone off, anyone who is having trouble making payments we will turn to a long term payment plan and work with them to make sure we’re not a source of their problems.”