(TNS) — Customers who take electricity from publicly regulated utilities are looking for reliable, affordable services.

Recent “Smart Grid” upgrades involving both hardware and software, some of which already have been deployed, boost utilities’ ability to meet their desire.

But much of that work hasn’t yet been done, and plans for future projects aren’t cheap.

Regulators will need to remain vigilant by conducting cost-benefit analyses as utilities request cost recovery measures to implement needed ongoing improvements, Oklahoma Corporation Commission officials said Thursday.

“We are talking at close to $1 billion with what we are looking at today, and we know that isn’t all of it,” Commissioner Dana Murphy said after she, Commissioner Bob Anthony, members of the agency’s Public Utility Division and other interested parties listened to presentations from four utilities that are working to improve their electrical distribution systems to protect their systems and customers from outages caused by storms and other threats, such as cyberattacks.

“As regulators, we need to be sure we are getting the entire picture of value metrics,” Murphy said. “It was a great overview, because it is good to let the public know some of the things that could be coming.”

Brandy Wreath, director of the agency’s Public Utility Division, agreed with Murphy it is the commission’s duty to be sure consumers get value from the improvements they are asked to pay for.

“We are all going to have to do a better job at communicating about what the benefits are, how to quantify them, and putting it together in a way that makes sense for the public to look at,” Wreath said.

Making the Grid Smart

Smart Grid upgrades generally fall into a couple of categories.

Utilities use smart meters to save both them and customers costs. The meters collect routine electricity usage data, provide automated outage and restoration notifications, allow utilities to remotely connect and disconnect accounts and share data with customers to help them modify their usage patterns to save money.

Automated meter systems also track power put onto utilities’ grids by microgrids, solar energy systems and other distributed energy resources.

The hardening of distribution systems aims to improve their reliability.

Hardening efforts include aggressively managing vegetation to keep it away from substations and lines.

Utilities also install other improvements that range from fuses designed to automatically restore a shorted circuit to fault detection gear that can enable utilities to remotely isolate outages and quickly restore power to customers outside of damaged areas. Also, wildlife intrusion barriers are added at substations and near lines to keep to a minimum outages caused by animals.

Presentations were made by CenterPoint energy, an electrical utility that distributes power to customers in the Houston area; Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., a utility that serves about 856,000 customers in western Arkansas and across east-central and central Oklahoma; Public Service Co. of Oklahoma, a utility that serves about 554,000 customers across northeastern and southwestern Oklahoma; and Liberty Utilities’ Empire District Electric utility, which serves 4,686 customers in Craig, Delaware and Ottawa counties in far northeast Oklahoma.

CenterPoint

Chasta Martin, CenterPoint’s vice president of regulatory affairs and policy, said the utility began working to upgrade its electrical distribution system in 2009.

By 2012, it had installed 2.1 million smart meters on residential and small commercial customers’ electrical service points, and Martin said the utility is expected to wrap up the installation of smart meters for large commercial customers next year.

CenterPoint also installed its own, independent wireless communications network that communicates with those meters and uses data paired with compatible software to quickly communicate information to customers, including time-of-use rates, available rebates and real-time usage data that empowers those customers to change their usage profiles to save money.

Martin said CenterPoint estimates it saves between $20 million and $25 million annually in costs through its meter upgrade. She said CenterPoint also has improved its distribution management system, using the upgrades to quickly isolate about 2,800 outages since 2011.

“It allows us to restore service to customers much more quickly,” Martin said, noting the system enabled CenterPoint to avoid nearly 41 million outage minutes for customers during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.

OG&E

Zachary Gladhill, director of grid integration and innovation for OG&E, said the utility rolled out its program to outfit its customers with smart meters in 2009, and turned its attention to making improvements to poles, wires and to more aggressively manage vegetation in 2010.

Since 2013, OG&E has added software and hardware to better communicate with customers, locate and deal with outages using remote and auto-response systems and to better protect its substations and lines from wildlife intrusions.

About $45 million in upgrades along those lines it made in part of its service territory in Arkansas have reduced the average length of service disruptions in that area by 69%, compared to its previous, three-year average.

That is 47% better than what the utility had expected to see. It also reduced momentary power disruptions on those circuits by 47%.

It also deployed a new outage management system this month.

The utility aims to undertake a phased roll-out of distribution upgrades in Oklahoma soon, forecasting it could spend between $90 million and $110 million to undertake that work in 2020, if regulators approve.

Gladhill said OG&E evaluates its poles and lines before installing technological upgrades.

“We look at deploying the technology where it makes sense,” Gladhill said

PSO

Jennifer Leber, the risk and reliability manager for PSO, said it began deploying its smart meter technology across its service territory in 2010, completing that work in 2016. It has put together plans to modernize its grid, and has a $40 million distribution reliability safety proposal that would add gear to automatically isolate electrical faults and restore undamaged sections of grid before state regulators now as part of its pending rate case that is being reviewed.

Some limited work to upgrade part of its system in that regard already is underway, as is limited work to control voltage amounts on some of its lines.

Both Leber and Matthew Horeled, PSO’s vice president of regulatory and finance affairs, noted a major obstacle for PSO is the need to spend an estimated $465 million to replace pieces of its infrastructure that are more than 50 years in age.

“Since our grandparents built the system out, it is reaching the end of its useful life,” Horeled said. “We are seeking to replace it with more-modern equipment, which would benefit customers, going forward.”

Empire

Empire Electric District has not yet deployed smart meters to its Oklahoma customers.

However, Sam McGarrah, its director of system performance, said it has been working since 2010 to improve the reliability of its total system through its “Operation toughen-Up” program.

Company officials said Thursday that Liberty has spent about $63 million so far out of a total planned expenditure of $150 million to add automated distribution gear to its system and to rebuild transmission lines and substations to improve voltages and reduce reliability problems.

Officials said about $20 million of what has been spent so far was used to make upgrades to parts of the system serving its Oklahoma customers.

McGarrah said beyond future installations of smart meters, the district also plans to continue to work on improving its system’s resiliency and to enable its support of solar generation and other microgrids, as well as upgrades to meet expected demand changes on its system as more people acquire electric vehicles.

“My hope is we can actually notify customers of high usages before they get a bill … in an effort to ward off consumer complaints and frustration with us,” McGarrah said.

©2019 The Oklahoman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.