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We typically think of electricity as a wonder of modern technology. But according to Grant Crawford, P.Eng., Director, Distribution Grid Asset Management & Planning at SaskPower, most electrical networks have until recently been technological antiques.
“If you had a time machine and brought Alexander Graham Bell to modern times, he wouldn’t recognize today’s telecommunications. If you brought Tesla to the present, he’d probably say ‘oh yeah, that’s all the stuff I invented,’” Crawford said.
good example of this, Crawford noted, is the way power outages are detected. SaskPower depends on customers to report an outage and then it sends field workers to drive around and visually inspect the extent of the outage.
This obvious need for improved efficiency is only one reason why SaskPower is undertaking a wide-ranging grid modernization initiative, Crawford said.
Out with the Old
A major reason for overhauling the electrical grid is that it is past its prime. Crawford noted that Saskatchewan has more power poles than it has people and most of them were built in the 1950s. Many are now coming to the end of their useful lives. As it stands, SaskPower is replacing about 15 poles a year at a cost of about $300,000 each. The time is ripe for SaskPower to look at new ways to generate and distribute power to help minimize these replacement costs.
Clean and Green
As with every aspect of energy today, SaskPower’s grid will be affected by the carbon tax and moves to cleaner renewable energy. The era of huge coal plants generating power for vast areas of the province is coming to an end.
This will affect SaskPower in a number of ways. First, the utility is facing increasing competition from self-generated power through home solar which is becoming cheaper every year. SaskPower has had to adapt to these changes from consumers by instituting net metering devices to allow home solar generators to tie their power into the overall grid.
As well, SaskPower is receiving an increasing number of proposals for mid-sized power generation such as flare gas-powered generators, large solar and wind installations and small hydro-electric facilities. All of these demands, Crawford says, have caused SaskPower to radically rethink how it delivers power.
“Even though, to this point, we have been almost a monopoly (except for Saskatoon and Swift Current), we still have to think like a business. And the number one rule in business is ‘what the customer wants, the customer gets,’” Crawford said.
At the same time, carbon pricing will give consumers incentive to consider more electrical options such as electric cars. These devices will require a more heavy-duty electrical system than can be provided through solar. Likewise, industrial users still need a power system that is robust enough to handle sudden large draws of power which can’t be handled by renewable sources.
Those Darn Millennials
Demographics also play a part in driving SaskPower’s need to change.
To this point, SaskPower has had the benefit of a predominantly Baby Boomer workforce who have become the holders of a great deal of corporate memory and deeply ingrained skills that allow them to operate almost on an intuitive level. These employees are loyal and long-serving. Many have been with the company for over 30 years. One served for 46 years.
The Millennial employees coming up behind them are different in nature. They do not yet have the depth of skills of the Boomers. Nor are they likely to, since Millennials are inclined to change jobs every few years. On the plus side, they are also more in tune with technology than their predecessors. All of this points to the need to develop more technological solutions to help capture the lost skills of the Boomers and to adjust to the higher turnover rate of the Millennials.
As well, Millennials are helping drive the province’s power profile, since they are more inclined to adopt clean energy solutions like home solar.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Most modern industries went through several stages – steam power (first industrial revolution), electrification (second), IT and automation (third) and cyber-enhanced advanced automation (fourth). As Crawford described it, the electrical grid systems largely sat out the third industrial revolution and are now poised to leapfrog into the fourth.
SaskPower’s initiatives for modernization include remote monitoring of all grid assets, doing away with the need to manually inspect power outages. It also involves automated GPS repair vehicle tracking for more efficient dispatch to trouble spots.
The company is also instituting automated customer messages to cellphones to notify customers of planned outages or update them on anticipated repair times for unplanned outages.
Most significantly, it will require the construction of what Crawford calls “a smart grid” to monitor not only conventional assets but the ever-growing number of net meters and independent power sources.
Not for the Weak of Heart
Crawford noted that, to accomplish these tasks, grid modernization has to be a corporation-wide endeavour. It is not a project assigned to just one unit. Every unit of the company, from generation to customer service, is tied into the project.
It requires a complete change of mindset for the company, Crawford said. It must transform itself from a near-monopoly monitoring and distributing power from a handful of generation facilities to a facilitator of power transmission coming from thousands of distributed power generators.
“If you are looking for a challenge, it doesn’t get more daunting than that.”BACK TO TOP