The Evolution of the Power Grid


EPCOR Collingwood is ramping up tech innovation to meet new challenges

Electricity transmission is simple. Power the grid and quickly fix outages, right? Not quite that simple, according to Darren McCrank, Director of Ontario Operations at EPCOR Collingwood.

The Edmonton native believes that we are at the cusp of an evolution of the power grid which, on a North American scale, has fallen behind other infrastructure in terms of automation and efficiency. One interesting driver of this evolution is that many electricity consumers are also now producers.


“Customers are fast becoming a bigger part of the system,” explains McCrank. “When you put solar on the roof or have a battery in your garage and you’re looking to produce power and export it to the grid, you’re becoming a ‘prosumer’. This is a transition to multi-flows of power, with micro-generation on the rise. It’s an opportunity for EPCOR.”

More than just a pretty distributor

EPCOR received Ontario Energy Board approval to complete the purchase of Collus PowerStream, Collingwood area’s former electricity distributor, in September 2018. The parent company is a runaway success story. EPCOR is a municipally-owned corporation whose sole shareholder is the City of Edmonton. It’s unique among municipally-owned corporations as it has an independent Board whose Directors are business and community leaders from across Canada and the U.S.

EPCOR has become a multi-utility (electricity, water, wastewater, drainage and natural gas) with operations across North America. Growth, particularly in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, has primarily been on the water side. As a result, EPCOR is now the third largest privately-owned water utility. In Ontario, EPCOR is all over the map: electricity in Collingwood, a demineralization water treatment plant at the Darlington nuclear facility, natural gas in Aylmer and a brand new gas utility in Kincardine.


Grid evolution

With regards to electricity distribution, the question that McCrank asks himself is this: ‘How do we take advantage of distributed generation, microgeneration, to improve the resilience and reliability of the power grid?’

“We are beginning to integrate a lot of tech to drive operational efficiencies,” observes McCrank, “starting with ‘smart’ advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).”

The AMI installed in EPCOR Collingwood’s coverage area wirelessly transmits electricity usage data from buildings back to home base. It also paints a picture of where power is out, how extensive the outage is and where it began.

“That speeds up our response to restore power,” says McCrank. “Over time, the data we collect will help us to further improve reliability and outage response times.”

Data from smart meters also helps show trends in microgeneration and vehicle charging.

“The issue is managing power flow,” says McCrank. “The problem isn’t that microgeneration exists, but that it’s intermittent. The more microgeneration we get, the more of a shock on the system it is when the weather changes from sunny to cloudy. The larger the penetration level of distributed energy resources (DER), the more difficult load balancing becomes.”

McCrank notes that EPCOR is working hard to integrate the fast-paced adoption of electric vehicles and surmises that the recently announced $170-per-tonne federal carbon tax hike and proposed $15 billion in new spending on climate initiatives might spur that change. “There are lots of Teslas around town,” says McCrank. Electric vehicle charging disrupts the predictability of the load…with a Tesla, it’s a step-change in load behaviour.”

But electric vehicle charging and solar power generation are not the only DER factors. McCrank says that some commercial customers are putting in 5MW batteries, charging off-peak and using that power to beat the (peak) costs of global adjustments left over from shutting down coal and bringing in renewable energy. “With all of these things, we work with Hydro One to make sure that we can accept all of the distributed generation and operate reliably.”


Operation versus regulation

In terms of operations, that means EPCOR needs to guard against overloading transformers. Distributors have anticipated some level of load diversity increase over the years, but what are the limits of current infrastructure? That’s another job for AMI; data analytics will show what’s going on, where the pinch points are, and how to better plan the system.

McCrank believes that the power industry has to figure out how to integrate distributed energy resources and promote the democratization of the power grid. He points out two aspects to that: operational changes and regulatory considerations. “If we have to upgrade the transformer in a neighbourhood because there are 20 Teslas charging up at night, who pays for that?” It’s a good question. From a regulatory point of view, who funds new infrastructure requirements?

Size matters

The simple solution is to spend big on infrastructure and increase conductor size. “The onus is on us, working with our regulator, to be innovative,” explains McCrank. “DER can be tackled different ways, for example with local energy storage to flatten peaks and non-wired energy solutions like battery technology.”

McCrank points out other innovative opportunities, like charge flow management. “There’s lots of research going into managing charge control. If you don’t need your car charged before 7am, maybe there is a way to control charging so that not all vehicles charge at the same time.”

Looking for local collaboration

EPCOR is constantly evolving its electricity management program. In Collingwood, the distributor is researching ways of better integrating public electric vehicle charging. The company is also working closely with a vendor, London, Ontario-based Utilismart Corporation, to evolve quickly enough to meet mounting challenges in outage management. But there’s more work to do.

“We need to partner with the innovators out there to change the grid,” says McCrank. “We have to learn to be nimbler to respond to innovative customers. Collaboration is going to help us do that.” EPCOR is currently looking to identify and initiate pilot projects in the greater Collingwood area. Interested parties should contact Darren McCrank, Director of Ontario Operations, EPCOR, at [email protected], 705-441-1471.