Sometimes it takes a looming challenge to spur innovation. That’s what happened in New Brunswick about seven years ago when a strategic review revealed that the province’s century-old utility would be unable to generate enough electricity, or purchase enough from neighboring utilities, to meet customer needs by 2027.
It’s a similar story for aging electrical systems around the world. The traditional fix would see utilities borrowing billions of dollars to upgrade generation, transmission and distribution systems. But the publicly -owned NB Power was already carrying $5 billion in debt and politicians were rightly worried that adding more red ink would increase electricity costs for the utility’s 394,000 customers.
A more disruptive approach was needed—one that would transform the electromechanical grid into an automated digital system that manages power distribution in a more flexible, intelligent and efficient way, while providing customers with more control over how and when they use electricity. The results: a low-carbon smart grid that helps consumers manage their electricity consumption and reduces the need for future infrastructure spending. It became known as NB Power’s burning platform for change.
“We realized we had reached a point of no return and had to do things completely differently or we weren’t going to withstand the transformation happening with the industry very well,” says Brad Wasson, director of product development at NB Power. “We also saw it as an opportunity to be a leader in this smart grid space and spur some economic benefit for the region.”
That business need spurred an unprecedented collaboration between NB Power, Siemens Canada, the provincial and federal governments, the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and tech companies from across the country. The objective was to develop and/or integrate innovative smart grid technologies that would reduce electricity consumption, better incorporate renewable energy like solar and wind, and shift customer demand for power from on-peak to off-peak periods.
For example, NB Power is looking at how smart water tanks can be remotely controlled to heat up water before and after peak hours, thus reducing the peak power. This would save consumers money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as utilities rely more on fossil fuel-burning plants during peak periods.
“An important ingredient in the success of our work is
that all of the key stakeholders are very close together.
We can talk to the innovators in the marketplace, the
leaders at the university, the executives of the utility
and to the provincial and municipal governments —
and do all of that in one day.”
Richard Wunderlich, Siemens Canada
Fortunately for NB Power, UNB has been graduating top talent across the smart grid innovation spectrum, from microelectronics, power systems and software to technology management, big data analytics, security and economics. This breadth of expertise and talent is available to NB Power. In addition, local IT companies, management consultancies and industries can provide expertise to NB Power as it integrates the technologies, processes and organizational changes needed to transition to a smart grid architecture.
Access to job-ready graduates also enabled Siemens to open a global product development lab which develops smart grid software for international customers. Siemens currently has dozens of employees, including engineers working in Fredericton, NB. “I was astonished when we started here,” says Robert Hardt, president and CEO, Siemens Canada. “We thought it would be difficult to find the talent inside such a relatively small province like New Brunswick. We soon realized it wouldn’t be a problem. As a global company you always look to big countries like the United States, or India or European countries, but we were really astonished that we hav
e here in Canada and in New Brunswick such a potential of intellectual capabilities.”
In addition to being a research partner, NB Power is also a global reference customer for Siemens, which helps the company market proven experience to other utilities
“We have a lot of reference customers but none like
NB Power,” says Richard Wunderlich, head of Siemens Canada’s Power Technologies International consultancy division. “There is no partnership that is quite as deep and strategic for Siemens (in the area of smart grids).”
A “living lab”: from concept to market
The region’s reputation as a hotbed for smart grid innovation was solidified in 2016 with the establishment of the Smart Grid Innovation Network. UNB, Siemens Canada and NB Power, with financial support from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Opportunities New Brunswick, invested $8 million to launch SGIN. This “living lab” brings new ideas and new skill sets to NB Power, particularly in the areas of information technology and fundamental research. “The problems we’re trying to resolve go far beyond power engineering,” says Wasson. “They span the world of customer interaction, data communications, big data, security … and even public education and literacy building around energy.”
SGIN is comprised of three labs that help innovators and entrepreneurs design, develop and test smart grid-related products and services, from the lab right through to the grid.
“There is normally a lag between innovation and adoption and the Smart Grid Innovation Network’s objective is to reduce that lag to market,” says Wunderlich. “The work we’re doing at the network is about enabling an ecosystem of innovation where anyone can bring forward a good idea and then work together from idea conceptualization to commercialization.”
Step one for early-stage technologies is the Smart Grid Research Lab at UNB which provides a research platform for developing new smart grid concepts, models and algorithms. Assuming the product or service is technically viable, it moves next to the Siemens Interoperability Lab where it is tested simulating the live “grid-connected” environment. It’s where these technologies move next that is attracting global attention. NB Power’s Products and Services Lab does something few, if any, utilities would dare — test these technologies on a live electrical grid.
“What we have with the living lab in New Brunswick is an opportunity to develop solutions, to deploy them directly into the real grid and understand how to grow them up for larger utilities or down for smaller utilities,” says Wunderlich. “We’re hoping to get solutions based here in New Brunswick that enable the entire global utility sector.”
“We had global interest in the lab almost immediately after launching,” adds Wasson. “People from around the world were intrigued by this idea that you could connect to grid resource through a system of labs, because most utilities won’t let you do that.”
Partnering with small companies
SGIN also provides companies, particularly small firms, with an opportunity to validate their technology in partnership with a large utility and a multinational company. For example, Waterloo ON-based FleetCarma led a $1.3-million demonstration project that used SGIN to test the company’s smart charging system. Its connected-car platform gathers driving and charging data from electric vehicles, and communicates with smart-charging stations that allow utilities to adjust the charging speed to alleviate pressure on the electrical grid. It was a cross-Canada collaboration that included NB Power, Siemens Canada, Burlington Hydro (Ontario) and Powertech Labs (British Columbia). Other major utilities are also getting in on the action. In January, Emera Inc.—the parent company of NovaScotia Power—announced a $6.2-million investment to establish the Emera & NB Power Research Centre for Smart Grid Technologies. The contribution will support an Emera Chair in Smart Grid Technologies at UNB, as well as provide direct funding for smart grid research.
The resulting innovations will not only be put to use in Canada. Emera owns utility companies in Florida, New Mexico and the Caribbean and both Emera and NB Power sell electricity to utilities in the northeastern United States.
Wasson says he hopes other utilities from across Canada and globally will take advantage of this growing innovation cluster in Atlantic Canada. “This is a national and international phenomenon. The need for this is global and we can’t solve these problems alone, so we need to collaborate with other utilities nationally and internationally.”
Check out the case study report on the Siemens-NB Power collaboration