WEL Networks is the first company in the New Zealand electricity industry to provide its customers with smart technology that is capable of more than just remote meter reading.
WEL's smart boxes and smart grid are already providing customer and network management benefits that are good for the company and its consumers, the ultimate owners of the business.
The WELconnect project was born, in part, out of the need to prepare for changing consumer demand, such as the potential for an influx of electrical cars and low-cost renewable generation on the network. Immediate issues also needed to be addressed: projected increases in peak demand signalled a need for a potential $18 million investment to expand or build a new grid exit point beyond 2015.
Realising that ‘first generation' smart meters used by retail companies were missing the opportunity to include functionality that works for the customer, WEL opted for technology with the capability to modernise the network to enhance the level of service it provides to customers.
In the past year the company has installed 10,000 smart boxes out of 84,000 planned over the next two to three years. Work has just started on the next 35,000 unit roll out.
WEL says its smart boxes and the communication system that connects them give the company a much more detailed picture of usage on the network down to the customer level. Longer term they will enable it to develop opportunities and improve demand-side options for controlling peak network loads.
The communications network is provided by Silver Spring Networks (SSN) and is synced with smart boxes at every customer property.
In the event of a power cut, the smart box is capable of generating an automatic ‘customer call' on WEL's outage management system. This means outages can be identified before a customer calls it in. Fault finding will be easier and outage prediction functions fully utilised. The progress of power restoration can also be compared with the progress of known outages at the high-voltage level.
WEL is also able to receive power or voltage readings at points on the network in seconds. Call centre staff will be able to see if customers have normal power and voltage when they call in a fault - reducing callouts for internal wiring issues. Voltage excursion events can be processed to identify network issues such as tap settings that are too high or too low, customers with line service issues, and line sections with poor voltage regulation.
WEL says the next phase of WELconnect will be to educate customers on how the system can help deliver savings for the broader community and what the individual, personal benefits could be. Then, customers can be given the choice in decision-making that will reap rewards.
In future, in-home devices that manage the cycling of electrical appliances should lead to lower energy bills for customers. Better controlled peak demand on the network also means less likelihood of demand-related outages, WEL says.
The overall strategic objective of the project was to improve customer service by taking a more responsive approach to asset management and network operations.
But it is also driven by the need to minimise network investment by optimising the use of the existing assets, while still ensuring standards of reliability and security.
Assuming a complete smart grid rollout, WEL expects to achieve significant annual savings. Deferral of upgrades to low-voltage circuits will save $112,000 a year, reductions in other network investment about $260,000, improvements to fault response times and more specific first-time response specialists about $44,000 and improvements to technical investigations $16,000.
One-off savings include $1 million from not having to replace old ripple relay infrastructure. There is potential to defer another $11 million from not having to increase the capacity of one of the company's grid exit points, along with additional savings of $6.5 million from avoiding related upgrades on WEL's sub transmission network.
The Innovation in Electricity category is sponsored by Gentrack.