Innovative System Helps Burbank Water and Power Keep Electricity Flowing

Thanks to timely and accurate data about the grid and a helpful software solution, the California utility is able to pinpoint transformers which are at risk of failure rather than using an old-fashioned and imprecise “best guess” approach.

by Chad Garland, Burbank Leader / February 17, 2015
Burbank Water and Power Flickr/Jeff Drongowski

(TNS) -- An innovative analysis — perhaps the only one of its kind in the country — has allowed Burbank Water and Power to identify potential weak spots in its power grid and to fix them before they become a problem.

The utility, which boasts one of the best records for reliability in the nation, averaged 16 minutes of down time for its customers in 2013, compared to a national average of 130 minutes, according to data collected from more than 220 utilities across the United States by PA Consulting Group, putting the local utility’s performance among the top 10% in the industry.

Now, thanks to timely and accurate data about the grid and a helpful software solution, the utility is able to pinpoint transformers which are at risk of failure rather than using an old-fashioned and imprecise “best guess” approach, which utility officials say will result in cost savings and even better performance.

After the system was rolled out in March, engineers developed a priority list for crews to work down, replacing or rebalancing such transformers. On Sept. 16 of last year, as temperatures soared and led to the “highest all-time energy sales in Burbank,” according to a staff report, the utility had no transformer outages.

That’s an unprecedented feat, said Calvin Clark, a utility engineer who briefed Burbank City Council on the utility’s new analytical capabilities on Tuesday.

In order to achieve the accomplishment, Clark said, the utility had to find a way to determine and monitor the load being put on distribution transformers — the gray, can-like devices that hang on power-line poles and convert electricity for use in nearby buildings.

When transformers are overloaded, they can give out unexpectedly, causing outages.

In the past, monthly metering provided only one data point per 30 days, or 12 per year, giving at best a guess at a transformer’s load, Clark said. But the city’s advanced metering infrastructure of smart meters allows a “much more granular” analysis, he said, with usage data reported every 15 minutes. That’s about 35,000 per year.

“With that data, we can do some pretty interesting things,” Clark said.

Combined with a highly accurate map of the city’s electrical grid and some number-crunching, engineers could develop an accurate picture of each transformer’s utilization, as well as how its workload was causing it to age — gracefully or not so much.

But that’s a lot of data for an engineer to analyze, so the city turned to Silicon Valley start-up GRIDiant Corp. — later acquired by the global smart-meter company Landis+Gyr Inc. — which for $70,000 developed a software solution to reduce the manual calculations.

Clark said he believes that the software paid for itself in its first year.

“We can see the system in ways we never could before,” he said. “This was really the game-changer for us.”

According to the staff report, the utility issued 50 work orders as a direct result of the analysis performed to address transformers that were identified as being at higher risk of failure. The software also helped identify low-voltage conditions at 2,000 locations that were corrected before a single customer called to complain, which was the old-fashioned way such problems were identified.

“It is safe to say that Burbank is one of the leaders in demonstrating how this technology not only increases utility efficiency, but also has a direct impact for consumers in terms of improved reliability and power quality,” said Dan Jacobson, senior marketing manager with Landis+Gyr, in an email Thursday.

Several City Council members said the results were impressive.

Councilwoman Emily Gabel-Luddy pondered whether similar technology could be used to analyze other assets within the city’s infrastructure.

“This is a great application of analytics,” Gabel-Luddy said. “It is fascinating.”

©2015 the Burbank Leader (Glendale, Calif.)

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