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California ISO takes outage prevention, renewables intelligence to new level

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James McIntosh, California ISO's Director and Executive Operations Advisor

with James McIntosh, California ISO's Director and Executive Operations Advisor

The California Independent System Operator has a huge responsibility to energy consumers, delivering 286 billion kilowatt-hours annually over 25,000 miles of power lines to 35 million customers. This encompasses 80 percent of California's power grid. Further, California's goal of generating 33 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020 is driving the rapid development of wind, solar and other renewables facilities.

In an interview with FierceEnergy Editor Barbara Vergetis Lundin, James McIntosh, California ISO's Director and Executive Operations Advisor discusses how the ISO is meeting these critical obligations.

FierceEnergy: When you first began speaking with vendors, what goals were you hoping to achieve?

James McIntosh: The Northeast Blackout of 2003 affected more than 55 million people in the U.S. and Canada, caused 11 fatalities, and shut down the delivery of critical consumer services for several days. The United States-Canada Power System Outage Task Force's findings of why the blackout occurred were clear: Operators were unaware the system was being operated outside acceptable guidelines, the deteriorating condition of the system was not recognized, and effective real-time diagnostic support for the interconnected grid was not available.

The California ISO recognized that it needed better systems and intelligence to prevent a similar large-scale outage that would put lives and millions of dollars at stake and began evaluating vendors in 2006.

FierceEnergy: You chose Space Time Insights to help you meet this goal. How does the technology help address the issues you describe?

McIntosh: Previously, operators would need to scour many pages of tabular information to spot anomalies on the grid. In addition, each discipline within the ISO had its own independent systems, making synchronization of information across teams a manual process prone to misunderstandings and delays, and allowing critical information to fall through the cracks. And as the ISO increased its commitment to renewable energy sources to meet California mandates, the volume and complexity of data continued to climb, making it difficult for operators to anticipate and react to weather changes that impact solar, wind and other renewable sources.

The ISO recognized that operators needed faster access to "actionable information." They needed to be able to see, understand, and respond to changing conditions in real time, and effectively share information across disciplines. To accomplish these goals, the ISO deployed new situational intelligence software in a state-of-the-art control center so all operators and managers would be able to see at a glance the state of the grid and assess developing situations in real-time.

FierceEnergy: Why did you choose situational intelligence?

McIntosh: It was becoming challenging for the California ISO operators to consume and process the steadily increasing velocity, volume and variety of data entering our operations center.  We chose a situational intelligence solution because of its ability to quickly federate real-time and historical data, and feeds from multiple sources into easy-to-understand displays that our operators and dispatchers can use to make decisions. 

Now, our operators can walk in to the control center and quickly assess the current situation by looking at the visual displays. This helps us maintain a greater degree of grid reliability, be more responsive to crisis situations, manage the price of energy more efficiently, and make better use of the renewable energy available to us.

FierceEnergy: How, specifically, is the technology being used?

McIntosh: The ISO integrated Space-Time Insight's situational intelligence solutions into a first-of-its-kind 80 ft. X 6.5 ft. video wall that fronts what many consider the most sophisticated control center in North America. The geospatial software -- which includes the Market Intelligence, Grid Intelligence, Renewables Intelligence, and Crisis Intelligence applications -- correlates, analyzes and visualizes information from numerous real-time data sources, enabling ISO operators to make rapid decisions based on that information. Additionally, the displays allow multiple disciplines across the organization to collaborate more easily to get everyone on the same page when action is required.

The technology accesses and integrates massive volumes of historical, real-time and predictive data from internal systems and external feeds, allowing the ISO to draw event-based correlations between points of information across space, time and nodes. This information is then transformed into configurable visual displays that alert users to issues, helping them identify the root of problems, while guiding them through steps required for corrective action. The software integrates with pre-existing ISO systems and combines the data from those systems with external feeds.

Traditionally, information is read off the grid four times per second. The new technologies being deployed allow data to be acquired at a rate of 60 times per second, providing vastly greater detail and insights into the status and behavior of the grid.

Insights such as this are helping operators to understand changing temperatures and conditions in California's many micro-climates. Their ability to anticipate changes in wind speed and cloud cover make a significant difference in the optimal use of wind and solar power.

Another innovation is the display by location of any congestion across the ISO's market system by comparing real-time nodal prices with five and 15 minute look-aheads. This allows operators to see quickly pricing trends and their effect on market performance.

FierceEnergy: When was the technology first deployed, and where has the deployment led?

McIntosh: California ISO discovered Space-Time Insight in 2008, when we deployed the vendor's Crisis Intelligence application to see and respond to wildfires burning close to transmission lines.

The software, which integrates with the ISO's existing systems and databases, federates data from multiple different sources and presents the results in intuitive visual displays. In the case of the crisis system, California ISO was able to combine information on fires with wind speed and trajectory data and overlay it on a map of the transmission system to stay ahead of risky situations and take action as necessary.

Based on this success, California ISO extended its use of situational intelligence into the wholesale electricity market in 2009, deploying Space-Time Insight's Market Intelligence application to track and visualize market pricing over 4,500 locations across California. This past year, the ISO implemented the software vendor's Renewables Intelligence solution.

The Renewables Intelligence application provides dispatchers the ability to assess, in real time, current conditions -- such as how unexpected storms, cloud cover and wind speed might impact solar fields and wind farms -- so they can make appropriate adjustments to optimize the use of renewable power and keep California on its emission-reduction trajectory. In addition, it enables California ISO to stay within defined limits on the circuit path, which prevents damage to the power system infrastructure and helps avoid millions of dollars in potential fines. The application tracks all the different generation sources -- conventional hydroelectric, solar and wind -- displaying their varying real-time outputs and external impacts.

For example, one display combines weather feeds and cloud cover data with infrared solar imagery to show the impact of clouds and weather patterns on solar generators. Another display shows wind speed contours, allowing operators to see pockets of fast-moving air approaching the wind generation fleets. This is very helpful in California, where forecasting can be difficult because of different geographies and micro-climates.

FierceEnergy: How are you measuring the success of the technology?

McIntosh: The success of these new geospatial data visualization technology capabilities is measured in multiple ways:

  1. Grid reliability. The ISO has to balance the demand and supply of power every 4 seconds. The use of more unpredictable power sources such as wind and solar makes this a challenging task. The geospatial displays help operators anticipate shifts in weather and cloud cover, allowing them to better optimize the use of these variable energy sources.  California has not suffered from any significant outages since the system was deployed.
  2. The price of electricity. The ISO must acquire power from the market at the most cost-effective price.  As a result of the new system, the ISO was able to transition from five pricing areas to more than 4,800 nodal prices, allowing granular and regional control over pricing and ultimately cheaper electricity for consumers.
  3. Avoiding crises. With fires cropping up across California on a regular basis, the ISO is challenged to ensure these fires do not impact the grid. The geospatial displays correlate data from multiple sources to identify fires that are currently or might in the future pose a risk to transmission lines. As a result, the ISO can alert utilities more quickly to the dangers, saving property and lives as a result.

The beauty of California ISO's situational intelligence system is that it makes complex data easy to understand. It not only lets California ISO build all the various data sources into macro-view indicators, but also enables operators to dig into the details and perform analytics on the data itself.

By combining external data sources with internal data, by polling the grid in millisecond intervals, and by presenting the results in a very intuitive geospatial visual display, California ISO gets a far clearer and more actionable picture of what's happening on the grid.  As one California ISO executive noted, the difference between older displays and the new situational intelligence displays is like comparing an x-ray and an MRI.

FierceEnergy: What advice would you give to other energy companies going through this process (vendor selection and technology deployment)?

McIntosh: We learned a lot throughout this process but the main takeaways include:

  • Flexibility is key. Visualization concepts from initial design to implementation evolve. Analytic requirements can change frequently, especially in operational environments where many variables come into play. Our recommendation is to find a vendor and software solution that is flexible enough to accommodate the inevitable changes that will be required during design, deployment and the lifecycle of the implementation. Flexibility allows both the end user and developers to work together to maximize the benefits at the final installation.  There are always improvements that can be made. 
  • Promote internal support. Make sure your organization invests in the necessary training and resources to empower an in-house expert that can help end users, as well and translate their concerns, requirements, and issues to the vendor.

Constructive feedback is the key to a successful deployment. The most sophisticated technology in the world has little value if people can't use it. In the California ISO's case, the intuitive and easy-to-use visual capabilities of the solution we deployed made it a win.   

  • Take a phased approach. Choosing a single vendor doesn't mean you have to do everything at once. At the California ISO, we started with the deployment of Space-Time Insight's Crisis Intelligence application, which we use to track and assess the impact of wildfires burning close to transmission lines.

Once that application was up and running successfully, we moved on to a Market Intelligence application and most recently, Renewables Intelligence, which is helping us optimize the use of renewable power and keep California on its ambitious emission-reduction trajectory.