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Ameren 'smart technology' aims at improved service

Ameren 'smart technology' aims at improved service

February 17th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Missouri News

If there's a cut in your electric service today, the outage may last from a few seconds to hours — or, in the case of severe storms, days.

Ameren Missouri hopes its new five-year, $5.3 billion "smart technology" plan announced last week will reduce most of those outages to almost nothing.

"Having a smarter system, a smarter grid — those systems will tell us to a better degree where a problem is at," Central Division Manager Chip Webb told reporters Friday, after the company announced its new plan.

"So trouble-shooting will be a much quicker operation and will allow our crews to get to the trouble quicker and do the repairs much quicker."

The new plan involves more than 2,000 infrastructure improvement projects throughout Ameren Missouri's 24,000-square-mile service area of Central and Eastern Missouri.

Mid-Missouri Projects

Two of the projects are set for Jefferson City this year.

"In the downtown area, we're getting ready to do a project that is a smart grid project — we will be installing smart switch gear that is, actually, self-healing," Webb said. "For the entire Jefferson City underground system, when an outage occurs, the system will be able to understand what that outage looks like and what's going on, and will automatically switch things around to restore power to most customers."

Without that equipment, he noted, "It would take multiple employees to go out and troubleshoot, identify where the problem is and then switch things around to restore power."

That project is expected to cost $1.2 million.

The other Jefferson City project this year will spend $250,000 to upgrade the Fairgrounds Substation on Industrial Drive (between Jaycee and Metro Drives).

In background materials about the five-year project, the company said at the Fairgrounds Substation: "Cables will be upgraded and installed in conduit, which is a protective casing. (It) hardens the system and provides improved reliability for customers for decades."

In 2020, Ameren plans to upgrade the New Bloomfield Substation.

And the Holts Summit Substation will be upgraded in 2023.

The company said both of those projects will be "upgrading aging substations with modern, smart grid equipment that will reduce or eliminate outages, while minimizing repairs to maintain. New digital communication network upgrades will allow for quicker detection of outages and the ability to re-route power and restore service quicker for customers."

The same explanation is offered for the Versailles and Mount Carmel substations in Ameren's Lake of the Ozarks Operating Center, which both are scheduled for the upgrades in 2021.

Future work?

The company sees the five-year project just as a first step in upgrades — but hasn't announced other projects.

"We want to see what sort of benefits are coming out of this first five years," Ameren Legislative Affairs Director Warren Wood told reporters. "We want to make sure that we're walking this path with policy makers, so they see the benefits (and) the savings to customers — and then we'll see if the program is appropriate to be extended, or not."

Webb added: "We still have quite a bit of work to do across the entire state.

"The Smart Energy Plan dollars have been scattered across the state to make sure that all locations and all regions get an equitable share."

The work is possible, Wood and Webb said, because lawmakers last year changed how the state's regulations affect the utilities' ability to do upgrades.

They note the Missouri Public Service Commission still has ultimate control over the company's rates and rate structure.

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe still was a state senator when that law was passed.

"We're playing catch-up (with other states)," he told the News Tribune. "Many states have taken up grid-modernization plans.

"With new technology and new ways to deliver energy — and smarter ways, bringing in the solar, the wind (and) the other 'green' energy pieces — lots of other states have done this."

He hopes the state's two other investor-owned utilities — Kansas City-based KCP&L and Joplin-based Empire Electric — will explore similar upgrade ideas.

"My expectation is the other two will, at some point, come up with their list of projects (to) do, because I think that's the responsible thing to show their customers."

Kehoe noted the law didn't affect the rural electric cooperatives like Three Rivers.

"The co-ops have a very different model," he explained. "They're run by local boards (and) make decisions based on their member-owners' needs."

'Smart meters'

The five-year project also includes adding more than 800,000 smart electric meters throughout Ameren's service areas, through 2023, to give customers more insight and control of their energy options and costs, "including on their energy usage and how they have options to control costs and their bills," Wood said. "Maybe they want to participate in an energy efficiency program, (or) they want to know when their bill hits a certain level, and they get a text-notice about that.

"That's the kind of program we're talking about — focusing on what the customers want, and how do we go about delivering that on the smarter grid."

The company said the new projects will add jobs.

Webb said: "It will take a significant amount of workforce to do that.

"Obviously, we'll need skilled workforce out in the field — line men and substation workers and all the different outside skilled craft jobs.

"But, also, project leadership, project management and engineers — the guys in the field can't do the work unless somebody in the back offices is building and creating and designing that work."

Ameren said the new, five-year project is "the largest infrastructure investment plan" in the company's more than 100-year history.

But that history includes some major projects, including the Callaway Nuclear Power Plant, the Bagnell and Keokuk, Iowa, dams and the Taum Sauk center, which stores water that can be released during peak power demand times to generate extra electricity.

"If you look at building Callaway and other generating units, and the hydroelectric units, those were key elements of our service to customers — (but) each were an individual project," Wood explained.

"This project is broader in scope, in terms of every county that we serve across the entire state (and) it's a greater capital investment level — over $6 billion, when you look at all the different aspects of it, including over $1 billion of major wind energy projects."

No major undergrounding in plan

After a pair of storms in July 2006 left more than 645,000 eastern Missouri customers without power, some for up to a week — followed by a major ice storm in December 2006 that, again, left about 270,000 eastern Missouri Ameren customers without power, some for up to a week, the utility replaced overhead lines with underground service in some areas — including two Jefferson City neighborhoods.

Why can't the company put all its lines underground?

"It's really cost-prohibitive to do that," Ameren Missouri's Central Division Director Chip Webb explained. "If everything is underground (and) there's you do have a problem, it takes a lot longer to find it and fix it."

Webb said Ameren currently has a "good balance" between overhead and underground lines, "and we continue to look for opportunities, when we can, to add additional underground resources," including requirements for underground services in many new subdivisions.

Where overhead-line service remains, he said, "We continue to try to expand our tree-trimming efforts and identify those issues where they are and talk with customers.

"If we can remove those kinds of trees, we do — and our tree-trimming is better today than it's ever been."

That's resulted in a "significant decrease in outages in this area, related to tree problems," Webb added.

Ameren serves about 1.2 million electric customers in 24,000 square miles of Central and Eastern Missouri.

In some places, the company has underground service that's 30-40 years old.

"That aging infrastructure is starting to fail at an increasing rate," Webb said, "and that allows us to go in and systematically replace that old infrastructure with brand new, and then maintenance will go down, outages will decrease and system reliability will overall be better for our customers."