Sentient Energy: Transforming the 21st Century Distribution Grid
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Sentient Energy: Transforming the 21st Century Distribution Grid

CIO VendorJim Keener, CEO The distribution grid has started undergoing a seismic shift in its usage model accentuating the need for a thinking grid. Additionally, electric distribution companies continue to receive pressure from Public Service Commissions, and encouragement from the Department of Energy to improve both reliability and power quality while maintaining or reducing consumer rates. Combine this with an aging infrastructure and the proliferation of distributed generation, and you have the primary drivers for a fundamental change in both capability and performance of the Distribution Grid. The necessary transformation to serve current and future needs will not occur simply by the integration of technology and grid automation. The Distribution grid will have to evolve into an integrated, “thinking grid,” capable of predictive and life cycle analytics, while actively addressing the growth of Distributed Energy Resources.

Mind the Gap

Currently, there is significant data and information available at both the source (substation SCADA and DMS) and the load (Smart Meters and AMI network). However, there is a significant information gap on the primary distribution grid and connecting infrastructure. An integrated, thinking grid capable of meeting today's challenges will require modern infrastructure capable of data capture and information generation throughout all parts of the Distribution Grid. In addition to other modernization efforts, the 21st Century Intelligent Grid will require intelligent sensor technology, sensor gateway architecture, enterprise programming with advanced data analytics, and an eye towards integrating into a customer’s existing environment.

The Four-Stage Transformation to a Modern Thinking Grid

An ideal transformation of the grid should encompass the following attributes: Show measurable improvement at every stage to assure rate recovery, minimize operational expenses (O&M) to ensure an efficient operation over the lifecycle deployment, increase profitability, and enable rate optimization with customers. The Nation’s leading utilities have successfully adopted a number of best practices in their continued efforts to modernize the Distribution Grid, focused on improving reliability and reducing O&M costs. New technologies form the backbone of grid modernization efforts, with the most progressive utilities installing ‘smart sensors’ for Data Acquisition, and employing tools that allow them to better use this information.

The progression from the existing Distribution Grid to an integrated thinking grid can be viewed as a four-staged transformation. This allows the Utilities to modernize their infrastructures while showing incremental improvement and assuring rate recovery for invested capital. This approach capitalizes on O&M reduction while improving performance. Utilities should drive infrastructure improvement and profitability simultaneously. Infrastructure improvements will occur throughout all four stages and include replacement of older, non-intelligent equipment with modern devices incorporating new technologies.

Stage 1–Data Acquisition: Deploy an intelligent sensor network throughout the Distribution Grid.

Intelligent sensors provide the front-end data of the grid power delivery operating parameters in near real-time. Intelligent sensors can process data using algorithms into load-monitoring, line balance, fault detection, two-way power flows, inadvertent system dynamics, and undesirable interactive dynamics between DERs and between DERs and the base distribution system. With this data and system, Utilities can improve key performance metrics like outage duration (CAIDI and SAIDI) and Customer Minutes Interrupted (CMI). Based on classic customer savings calculations, these reductions, alone, justify the cost of the Intelligent sensor network.

Stage 2–Data Aggregation: Waveform and disturbance analysis library as the building block to predictive analytics.

Capturing the knowledge about events and the grid disturbances that precede events can be used as actionable intelligence towards preventing outage occurrence. This enables the reduction in the frequency of both sustained outages (SAIFI) and momentary outages (MAIFI). Combining frequency and duration of outages (CAIDI and SAIFI) have led to the greatest impact on the overall reliability (SAIDI) of the Distribution Grid.

Stage 3–Data Assimilation: Develop a Grid optimization and utilization program.

Operating real-time parallel-processed distribution grid models using sensor data, historical data, AMI data, weather forecasts and even social data provides immediate situational awareness and enable preparedness for reacting to unplanned disturbances in the most efficient manner. This multivariate analysis will require further analytics of the data streams to ensure a deeper and richer predictive maintenance model, resulting in even further improvement in SAIDI and SAIFI. In addition, this enables infrastructure life cycle extension, and capital and O&M cost reduction.

Stage 4–Data Augmentation: Extend to implement a Distributed Generation Management, interactive, modern “thinking” grid.

Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) are going to be increasingly relevant as customers (Industrial, Commercial and Residential) and Utilities strive to be even more green. This includes power-flow direction and management, power quality analytics and optimization, and virtual power plant management for demand and generation-side management.

Sentient Energy Executes on its Vision of Distribution Grid Transformation

Sentient Energy is a distribution grid technology and analytics company that was founded six years ago by Michael Bauer, a successful entrepreneur with a history of rapidly scaling companies in Silicon Valley. Bauer is currently Founder, President, and COO of Sentient Energy. Bauer was a pioneer in envisioning the “thinking” grid that could give utilities information on where power was being delivered, offered them visibility along the entire grid, and even allowed them to fix faults before they occurred by leveraging analytics.

Today, Sentient Energy’s vision of the 21st Century Intelligent Grid is supported by four major pillars: intelligent sensor technology, sensor gateway architecture, enterprise programming with advanced data analytics, and customer solution integration programs.

Intelligent Sensor Technology–The foundation required for a thinking grid starts with Sentient Energy's Intelligent Sensor Technology. Through their monitoring and Communicating Faulted Circuit Indicator (CFCI) capability, these sensors allow for improved grid performance and O&M reduction through reduced service interruptions. The sensors have been designed with future proofing in mind, providing an embedded Linux computer and local communications capabilities in order to be able to do complex computing at the device level (edge computing). At over 130 samples per cycle, Sentient Energy’s technology has the highest fidelity in the industry, enabling complex predictive algorithms and distributed energy management. At the 2017 DistribuTech conference, Sentient Energy will roll out its expanded offering, beyond it current overhead line to cover all Distribution Grid locations.

Sensor Gateway Architecture–Several Utilities have AMI and DA networks that have been deployed at great expense to provide private networks, with minimal operating costs. Sentient Energy products can communicate on Landis+Gyr, Silver Spring Networks, as well 4G LTE networks. As Utilities build out Distribution Grid wide sensor networks, there may be needs to have mixed network deployments. With Sentient Energy's gateway architecture, intelligent sensors with MESH, WiFi and cellular radios can reside and communicate on the same system. Sentient Energy is the only distribution grid sensor/analytics technology vendor that provides this full range of communications options. This Architecture also enables integration with other customer legacy systems.


The Distribution grid will have to evolve into an integrated, “thinking grid,” capable of predictive and life cycle analytics


Enterprise Software and Advanced Analytics-Sentient Energy's enterprise software delivers the architecture and platform to manage the network infrastructure of intelligent sensors while acting as a foundation for advanced analytics, diagnostics and management functions such as Disturbance Management and Distributed Generation Management. Key Elements include waveform and disturbance capture and characterization, a waveform library with numerous classifications and categories, analytic algorithms and applications focused on predictive and life cycle measures, and management systems focused on Disturbance and Distributed Generation Management. The Sentient Energy software platform leverages both the data capture and edge computing capabilities of the sensors to optimize data analytics across the networks.

Customer Solution Integration Programs-Due to the diversity of communication networks, the complexity of transferring large data sets over limited data transfer vehicles, and the transformation of the traditional Utility model and requirements, each customer requires a detailed network analysis and unique solution for system integration. Sentient Energy has developed a Customer Solution Integration team to assist Utilities in establishing the infrastructure required for the “Thinking Grid.” This team is responsible to work with each customer in establishing and implementing a solution that integrates all systems and achieves maximum benefit.

A Culture of Collaboration

Sentient Energy keeps a strong rapport with the utilities they serve to understand the pain points better and stay on top of their needs. For the last two years, Sentient Energy was the only non-utility invited to a two-day symposium where utilities gathered to discuss their most important issues. The Transmission and Distribution leaders of these utilities— including PG&E, SCE, Exelon, AEP, and Nextera—have come together to form an advisory forum that discusses these issues in detail. Sentient Energy’s penchant for building beneficial relationships is also noted in the company’s versatility. Sentient Energy is the only vendor in its space working closely with companies like Silver Spring Networks and Landis+Gyr, as well as Wi-Fi and cellular providers.

"Utilities should drive infrastructure improvement and profitability simultaneously"

Working Toward a Safe, Reliable, and ‘Solar Ready’ Grid

Sentient Energy’s deployments have already seen significant successes. In a contract with the Florida Power & Light Company (FPL), it was initially set to deliver 3,000 Sentient MM3 intelligent distribution grid sensors as part of the utility’s “Energy Smart Florida” program. It grew into a 20,000-unit deployment stretching across 42,000 miles of overhead power lines, making it the largest Utility Distribution Grid line sensor deployment in the world. The data it gathers provides greater reliability at a lower cost by helping FPL to locate outages quicker and get crews to electrical fault locations faster, allowing FPL to provide ever more reliable service to its 4.8 million customers.

What’s Next for Sentient Energy?

Sentient Energy is working on two products that will allow Utilities to monitor underground cable systems and components to provide load data, balance, power quality and fault detection. We are also working on a voltage sensing and analytics capability that will be available in 2017. At the 2017 DistribuTech Conference in January 2017, the company will debut its grid analytics and disturbance management systems. These systems will tell utilities where on the grid there is a condition that will lead to problems in the future, such as failing splices, flashed over insulators, and others. With multiple engineering teams hard at work, we believe that Sentient Energy is well on its way to making our vision a reality.

- Judy Simon
    December 14, 2016