Tech Savvy: American Water

Embala's smart-grid works as "cruise control" for large power loads.

If they ever think of water works, most people imagine pipes and pumps – more Victorian age than high tech. After all, in most cities, the big facilities that filter our drinking water and process our waste are out of sight, out of mind. But ask Ron Dizy, president and chief executive of Enbala Power Networks, about North America’s thousands of water works, and he’ll tell you they represent an enormous reservoir of untapped, low-cost energy services potential.

Connected to Enbala’s smart-grid systems, water works is just the first category of big energy consumers that, by rapidly shifting when and how they use electricity, have the ability to help smooth out micro-fluctuations in the grid’s energy flows, displacing the fossil-fuelled generators that now perform this service. What’s more, Enbala’s software could boost renewable energy, too. It provides the kind of grid stabilization needed to help manage the variability of solar and wind energy as these sources make up more of the power mix.

Dizy’s vision is taking shape at a pumping station in Shire Oaks, south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where American Water, the largest publicly-traded water and wastewater utility in the United States, is collaborating with Toronto-based Enbala. American Water has connected the pumps and compressors at its facility to Enbala’s smart-grid software, which can remotely turn the machines up or down to help keep supply and demand of electricity on the regional grid in constant balance. In the industry, this is called frequency regulation.

“Think of frequency regulation as a cruise control for the electric system,” explains Scott Baker, an analyst at PJM Interconnection, which manages a section of the U.S. grid spanning 13 states, plus the nation’s capital. To go a steady 60 mph, your cruise control imperceptibly adjusts gas and brakes to keep your speed constant. “Regulation services do the same thing, adding or reducing power on the grid to keep its frequency in balance,” says Baker. And like cruise control, which adds only spurts of gas or taps the brakes to control speed, regulation services require relatively small adjustments to do their job, with tiny doses of power added or consumed to stabilize frequency.

Conventionally, grid operators such as PJM have paid specialized generators to provide these balancing services. Because frequency regulation must be supplied in real time, all the time, these plants must be designed to be extra rugged, able to ramp up or down very quickly.

To be clear, regulation services are different from the so-called demand response. “You might call them distant cousins,” says Dizy. Demand response works when big energy consumers agree to switch off big users of power, with advance notice, for a few hours, a few times a year, when demand on the grid is greatest. On the other hand, regulation services are delivered on smaller scales, but are required 24 hours a day, every day, for minutes rather than hours, he explains.

Enbala’s solution turns the conventional approach on its head. Its software eliminates the need to generate electricity to balance the grid. It performs the same trick by managing electricity demand in real time. As such, the process can behave like a battery, Dizy notes. Rather than store energy in chemical form, as in a battery, Enbala describes its approach as “process storage,” where mechanical processes – such as filtering water – can be banked in advance of their use.

When, for instance, PJM needs a tiny increase in power use, Enbala requests that the pumps at American Water’s facility boost the flow of water into a holding tank by a few per cent. Or, if PJM needs power use to fall by a fraction, massive air pumps at the facility used to aerate wastewater treatment can be turned down. The adjustments are small – a few per cent up or down, for only a few minutes.

Enbala’s remote tweaking is designed to have no net effect on the water works’ processes. “At the end of the day, we’re just shifting when we use the power,” says Paul Gagliardo, manager of innovation development at American Water. Yet both companies earn a steady stream of payments from PJM for supplying the frequency regulation service.

The benefits for American Water have tallied up quickly. After less than a year working with Enbala, the water company reports that its total energy bill at the facility has fallen by two to three per cent. Happy with the outcome, it is now rolling out the system to 20 or so of its facilities.

Dizy’s company has identified many other industries that can provide regulation services by turning their processes up or down on the fly. “We’re just beginning to scratch the surface,” PJM’s Baker says.

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