Interview with John C. Roukema, Director of electric utility, Silicon Valley Power

Please start with a brief overview of SVP.

Silicon Valley Power is the trademark adopted for use by the century-old Electric Department of the City of Santa Clara, California. SVP provides power to more than 50,000 customers at rates 25 to 45% below neighbouring communities. SVP currently provides almost 50% renewable power (counting large hydro resources) to customers and also offers customers a 100% renewable energy option through its award-winning Santa Clara Green Power programme. SVP is an active participant in the wholesale energy markets in the Western United States.

What smart meter/smart grid activities is SVP involved in and what technology is being deployed?

Over ten years ago SVP installed MV-90 and advanced metering at its largest customer, allowing the customer to see their 15 minute profile data from the previous day. More recently, SVP conducted two early pilots to help us understand the current state of the AMI industry with particular interest in the communication strategy. In the first pilot, we tested a Field Area Network (FAN: light post to the meter) using both ZigBee and WiFi technology. We learned a great deal about WiFi interference and the difficulties of data integration with our billing system.

The second pilot was initiated soon after we acquired an outdoor WiFi system. This pilot tested the viability of using an in-place wireless broadband system for AMI, and it worked wonderfully. In this case, the FAN was a meshed 2.4 GHz system that connected directly to the WiFi nodes and backhaul. Again, the biggest hurdle was data integration with the billing system.

Based on these early experiences and information coming from other pilots, SVP plans a step-by-step process that starts with the integration of an MDMS with the utility billing system – our Achilles heel. Interval reads for this first phase integration will come from an existing MV-90 implementation. SVP has contracted with Siemens to install and integrate the eMeter MDMS product, Energy IP. We are near completion of a selection process for an AMI technology and vendor.

Why did SVP follow the approach of purchasing a WiFi network?

Early on, it was clear that the vast majority of benefits from a “smart grid” system depended greatly on a robust communication strategy. Coincidentally, a provider of “free” outdoor WiFi service in our territory was failing financially. For a greatly discounted investment, we purchased this fully functional system and piloted its use as a collection and backhaul infrastructure for AMI. It worked without a hitch. After a year of ownership and management, we now understand the requirements and benefits of this system for uses by the utility, other departments within our city government, and the people who live, work and visit our community.

What is SVP doing to engage customers in their energy management?

SVP has a suite of efficiency programmes for residents and businesses. One of our most exciting engagements is with Santa Clara University. Under the University’s 20-year Green Vision, we are working collaboratively to enable a smart microgrid. Microgrids are becoming a hot topic as customers seek to satisfy their organisational goals of energy independence, high percentages of renewable power and business continuity.

SVP is known for its “green” offerings and what are these?

Starting with a base power mix that is normally about 30% “eligible” renewable (50% when large hydro is added), SVP goes a step farther to offer a 100% renewable option under the Santa Clara Green Power Programme. Additionally, our customers support the installation of solar systems on local community buildings through small monthly contributions on their bills under the Neighbourhood Solar Programme. We are adding new renewables to our mix every year.

How does SVP maintain its tariffs at competitive levels?

SVP has the lowest system average electricity rate in the state of California. The long term strategy of our utility has emphasised price stability and power reliability. That strategy seeded several decisions starting in the 1980s to take control of our energy future by investing in a diverse portfolio of assets that we own exclusively or co-own with other municipal utilities. Chief among these are high upfront cost, low fuel cost facilities such as geothermal, hydro, wind and even a little coal. Our customer base of large high-tech and data centres, combined with very mild weather, results in a flat summer peak that other utilities must pay dearly to manage. Our low rates are a result of those factors and others.

What impact would the high speed internet partnership with Google have (if awarded to SVP)?

Google has a penchant for understanding consumers and consumer interfaces. I believe that for customers to pay attention to energy use, a simple, but information-rich web-based interface is critical. Customers will interact with their smart home on their smart phone from anywhere in the world. A rich, web-based interface requires broadband connectivity to the user.

Is SVP able to benefit from the high-tech environment which it serves?

Not a week goes by without being contacted by a high-tech or venture capital supported start-up regarding a new green technology or strategy. We are surrounded by great thinkers, great ideas and great investment. We are part of that culture and see the connection between the technologies of today and the strategies of the future.

What are the key challenges facing SVP?

Changing regulation surrounding the climate crisis, constricted budgets and a retiring workforce keep us on our toes. At the same time, Santa Clara has become a Mecca for the data centre industry. Our low rates, high reliability, high green power content, IT trained workforce and extensive fibre optic connectivity create a local hot spot of these high-use facilities. Business is booming.