Public Power Magazine

Where Great Minds Reside


From the March-April 2012 issue (Vol. 70, No. 2) of Public Power

Originally published March-April 2012

By David L. Blaylock
Online and Magazine Editor
March-April 2012
Idaho Falls Power meets a quarter of its load from hydro facilities located along the Snake River. Photos by David L. Blaylock.

When Joseph A. Clark campaigned to become the first mayor of Idaho Falls, Idaho, promising to bring electric power to the city, the vision was simply to have illuminated streetlights on nights without a full moon. He had no idea that he was setting in motion the creation of a utility that would lead innovation in the city for the next century and beyond.

Built along the Snake River in the southeastern corner of the state, electric generation in Idaho Falls began in 1900 with water tumbling out of an irrigation ditch. Two years later, as residents yearned for electricity in their homes, Idaho Falls Power was born, selling residents and businesses a pair of powered lights for $1 per month (additional pairs cost between 30 and 40 cents).

"As residents wanted more, the city followed," said Jackie Flowers, Idaho Falls general manager. A new dam and powerhouse was built in 1912 to create the city's first run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant.

Today the city generates hydro power from four facilities: three 8-MW bulb turbines at different spots on the river and a 23.4-MW horizontal bulb turbine plant. These facilities account for about a quarter of the city's load, with the rest mostly coming from Bonneville Power Administration.

"Hydro is a great source to work with," said Generation & Operations Superintendent Mark Reed. "It's easy to maintain as long as you stay on top of it and it's renewable. The only drawback is that flows recede in the fall and winter and the generation capabilities go down for a stretch."

A veteran of the naval nuclear power program, Reed has pushed the utility to embrace new technology and innovation since joining Idaho Falls Power in 1995.

"We've been building the foundation for the so-called smart grid for the last decade," Reed said. Idaho Falls is one of the recipients of a Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration grant and is testing the implementation of advanced metering infrastructure with volunteer customers. "We kept adding the pieces; now we're getting to put it into a really great package."

The utility office has a large classroom-like section (above) to aid in informing customers about the utility, types of generation, and how different types of bulbs look and how much power they use (lower right).

Growing load drives innovation. The city's electric load is growing, while the utility's ability to supply that load is remaining relatively flat, Reed said. For this reason, the utility was involved in the planned construction of a coal plant that ultimately fell through.

"We knew we needed to find a way to at least control some of the electricity we are losing in the distribution system, thus reducing the amount of electricity we have to purchase," Reed said. "Taking the tools we have and building AMI seems like a logical next step."

A key component is the city's fiber system, which was completed in 2005.

"Among the many benefits we've seen with the fiber is the communication path it gives us to our facilities," said Information Systems Supervisor Jace Yancey. "It's reliable, fast, and gives us a lot of options on how we can make the most of all the broadband the city now has."

The fiber system has brought improvements to other city services, including traffic signals and voice-over-IP phone service. For Idaho Falls Power, it has also offered faster connections between the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system and the city's substations, four power plants and allowed for the installation of better security cameras at those facilities.

The remainder of the fiber is leased as dark fiber to local independent service providers.

"That means we provide the highway into a facility and then leave the services up to the providers, whether they offer Internet or TV or something else," Yancey said. "We'll put the fiber in, they only need to light it up."

There are no plans to start offering services directly to the customer, Yancey said. "The door is open for that, but right now the network seems to work best the way we have it."

The fiber's place in the AMI system will be backhauling the information received from the meters. Since the city does not have fiber to the home, Idaho Falls Power will use a hybrid model where 900-MHz mesh-networked data collectors will pull the data to the fiber system and then on to the Idaho Falls Power office.

This will work directly with the city's automated outage management system, added in 2008.

"Using predictive analysis, the outage management system has drastically reduced our outage times already, and we're seeing an opportunity to improve on that even more with this meter upgrade," Reed said. "Today, when a customer calls in, the system will go through a checklist to determine if it's a transformer in the neighborhood, in the substation, or something else based on information we have from other calls. With the two-way AMI system, the meters will be able to tell the outage management system when the power is out.

"The customer might be out at the store, have no idea their power is out, and return home to find it fully restored," Reed said. "Apart from signs of the power being out, they'll never know it was out, never have to deal with reporting it, and won't feel inconvenienced."

The greatest benefit of the smart grid "isn't simply money saved, but how it will make us more efficient, better at dealing with outages, and allow us to provide customers with more information so they can make informed decisions about their usage," Flowers said.

"We are going to do some testing on automated thermostat and water heater controls on both residential and commercial applications," she said. "Also there will be the implementation of in-home displays in 1,000 homes to test the efficiency increases expected from having energy usage more available."

"We do have some skeptics in town who are uneasy about the smart grid," she said. "I even had one customer come by the office awhile back to talk about his concerns for two hours. When he left my office, he seemed a little less worried."

"That's where being a public power utility makes a difference. People realize we are governed by the people they elect, not by a profit-driven body. I find it interesting to see the dynamics in the IOU areas where they are deploying it versus the public power areas."

One way to assuage concerns has been through education.

"We are going to create real opportunities to engage students in this new technology," Flowers said. "Part of the demonstration includes upgrading the schools in the area so that they can build a curriculum around it."

Idaho Falls Power already works aggressively to keep the community informed about energy sources, energy efficiency, and technology. This can be seen immediately when walking into the Idaho Falls Power office, where a large section has been set off for a classroom-like introduction to the utility, hydro generation and energy use.

The Computer Assisted Visualization Environment (CAVE), developed by the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, creates an interactive 3-D environment for those inside it. Idaho Falls Power has used the CAVE to look over terrain for distribution system siting options.

"One of the ways we have seen that room come to great use has been in how it adds to our energy efficiency program," Flowers said. "We're working on a commercial retrofit project right now, with a focus on rebates for commercial lighting retrofits that can be deployed in the office. If a business is considering changing to more efficient lighting, we have an area that showcases what different lights look like and how much electricity they are using. We have those light boxes for both commercial lighting and residential."

"The most gratifying thing, though, is seeing the children and teachers come in," she said. "The room is built to be fun but educational and the teachers are excited about seeing ways they can work energy into the curriculum."

Innovation in the community. It's not just school children who want to learn more about energy. Idaho Falls is home to the research and education campus of Idaho National Laboratory and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies.

"Having INL in our community is a huge asset," Flowers said. "They are a major partner for us in doing research on our projects. One example is an energy efficiency grant we received for a solar panel on top of our building and in the parking lot, which we are now going to coordinate with INL on testing electric vehicles and batteries."

"They see an opportunity to bring this national test to a cooler climate while we get an opportunity to better understand how this might affect our system," she said. "Our Chevy dealership is an authorized Volt dealer, so it might not be long before we see them on the roads and we'll have this INL research and the planned smart charging of electric vehicles from a 10-kW battery connected to those solar panels to understand impacts and how to mitigate impacts to the distribution system."

Meanwhile, the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, a partnership between INL, Idaho State University, Boise State University, and the University of Idaho, is doing a number of research projects with major implications to the energy industry. At the base of the building are arrays of canisters containing different soil samples, which are injected with carbon to test carbon capture and sequestration. Elsewhere are studies on bioenergy, geothermal energy, nuclear energy, and energy efficiency.

What excites Flowers the most, though, is an immersive 3-D simulator called the Computer Assisted Visualization Environment (CAVE). A $1.5 million system, the CAVE is filled with CAD drawings, scanned 3-D environments, and geographic images. When inside, a person can insert and remove fuel rods in a nuclear reactor or examine rock formations to see if they would be suitable for storing carbon dioxide.

"What we have isn't just for the ‘oohs' and ‘aahs' of being able to travel through the Grand Tetons in 3D; its flexibility and interactivity creates a way to look and manipulate data unlike you would ever be able to do sitting at a computer," said Keith Wilson, who does high-performance computing at CAES and INL.

Idaho Falls Power has used the CAVE to look over terrain for distribution system siting options.

"Using this, we've been able to see what type of problems we might face if we make some change to the lines in a parts of the city," Flowers said. "Since it's in 3D, it's not like looking at a map but rather like being right there in the spot, able to see if a new transmission line is going to be in the way of some agricultural machinery or in somebody's view."

Solar photovoltaic panels are located on the Idaho Falls Power headquarters roof and side parking lot. The panel located in the office parking lot will be used to charge electric vehicles.

"Ideally, you could bring a person to see what a project would look like at their home," she said. "For policymakers, this could be a great tool to show how ordinances would affect the look and circumstances in the field."

Wearing a special glove allows a person inside the CAVE to interact with CAD drawings, creating the artificial workspace simulation in a nuclear plant for the researchers, but also creating an opportunity for Idaho Falls Power to have a means to train employees in substation management without risking injury or lost load, a prospect the utility has not yet fully investigated.

Flowers said brain drain risk associated with staff turnover at the utility has been a worry, but opportunities like this show how the partnership with INL and CAES will help Idaho Falls Power overcome some of the loss of institutional knowledge and experience through training.

"We have an amazing staff who will take with them job knowledge and experience that will be tough to replace," she said.

"Thankfully we've been able to add some great young minds to our staff, such as Jace, to help ease the transition."

INL has helped to bring in many other energy innovation employers, including a firm that produces SCADA systems for nuclear power plants and a facility that enriches domestic uranium for the U.S. nuclear fleet.

General Manager Jackie Flowers received the Idaho Partnership for Science and Technology's Energy Advocate Award in 2011. Rep. Mike Simpson, Mayor Jared Fuhriman, and Gov. C.L. Butch Otter presented her with the award. Photo courtesy of Idaho Falls Power.

The benefits of having the national lab in town have also spilled over into the community. For a city of about 56,000, Idaho Falls has a surprisingly strong cultural scene, Flowers said.

"We have a thriving arts center, a great museum, and a fantastic symphony, all heavily supported," she said. "In general, having so many citizens with a high education—many PhDs and engineers—means you have people who want these cultural options in large enough numbers. And then, you find that they work for companies that heavily support nonprofits in the community. We get a lot of tourism from Yellowstone and Grant Teton and people are often surprised at the number of cultural and fun community-driven things that are going on here."

The great minds aren't just at the lab, though, said Van Ashton, customer service adviser and a 29-year veteran of Idaho Falls Power.

A veteran of the Navy nuclear power program, Generation & Operations Superintendent Mark Reed now heads the city's smart grid project.

"I've seen our work force get so much more sophisticated, better educated over the years, allowing us to be at the cutting edge in every area here. It's refreshing living in a community that's got a lot going on while you are working for an employer that's striving to be just as innovative."

"As a utility, we're just getting started. It'll be good for the community; it'll be good for us."

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March-April 2012
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