Efficiency's big tent

Efficiency's big tent

Our notion of "efficiency" is expanding. That's a good thing.

What do you think of when you hear the word “efficiency?” I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about it all week at Ventyx World, but not in the way you might imagine. Most of us would associate “efficiency” with hybrid cars, LED lighting… something having to do with energy efficiency as opposed to, say, the efficiency with which you drive a car (hybrid or otherwise) through rush hour traffic.

More on that in a moment, but first an important distinction courtesy of Ventyx World keynoter Andy Karsner, former Deputy Secretary of Energy and a swirling vortex of enthusiasm about all kinds of efficiency. Karsner described the difference between conservation–“doing less with less”–and efficiency–“doing much more with less”–while in constant motion across the stage. (Seriously, every photo of the man giving a speech must be little more than a blur.)

The association between efficiency and deprivation by way of conservation is an unfortunate result of many years of bad PR, but maybe things would change if the efficiency concept were opened up a bit. Which brings me back to traffic.

One of the most vexing challenges in mobile workforce management (MWFM) for utilities especially is reducing “windshield time” (i.e., time spent driving to a given location). Obviously, the more of the crew’s time that’s spent doing actual work, the better. Today’s MWFM tools can optimize crew assignments and routes so that the entire process of on-site repairs and inspections becomes more efficient. That’s nice for the utility, but in the wake of a major storm, shorter restoration time is one flavor of efficiency everyone likes.

Of course there are still many ways to improve the efficiency of the grid itself. For example, volt-VAr optimization or “VVO” can improve the efficiency of a distribution feeder by 2 to 4 percent, which is significant. But Oklahoma Gas & Electric is using the technology in another way, specifically to reduce peak loads on its system. OG&E estimates VVO saves around 200 kW per feeder on average, which may not sound like very much until you multiply that number across the roughly 400 distribution feeders the utility operates. Now we’re talking about 80 MW, the equivalent of a gas-fired peaker plant that can be deferred thanks to VVO.

How’s that for efficiency?  And we’re only talking about what the utility does on its own. As Andy Karsner noted, there are big changes happening on the customer side of the meter too.

Look no further than lighting, which he said accounts for around 30 percent of a typical utility’s peak load. LED lighting is already being widely adopted by consumers not to mention energy-conscious municipalities and businesses. I haven’t done the math, but my guess is that 30 percent figure is set to fall sharply as LEDs gain more and more market share.

What’s great about LED lighting is that it’s happening on its own—no subsidies or special policy mechanisms required. It’s efficiency with a business case, just like optimizing work crews and feeder voltages.

So welcome, everyone, to the big tent. Glad you could make it. There’s efficiency for everyone on the table over there.

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