Smart Buildings, Smart Grid

Helen Vu of The Pacific Gas and Electric Company discusses how smart technology is making the distribution of both electricity and natural gas more efficient from an environmental and a financial standpoint

California’s reputation for leading the way in energy efficiency rests largely on the shoulders of The Pacific Gas and Electric Company, known to its 16 million customers as PG&E. Though its primary business is energy transmission and delivery, the company’s real estate portfolio is critical to its success. Helen Vu, PG&E’s executive leader for corporate real estate strategy and services, says her work at PG&E is very different from any real estate role she’s had in the past: “By the nature of the company, the work we’re in is heavy and industrial and, when it comes to electrical currents and gas pipelines, it can be a challenging business.”

Logistics is front and central in Vu’s job description, whether it’s economic feasibility studies for a new project or navigating the energy industry’s regulatory environment. “My role here is a little more complex than, say, if all I had was an office portfolio,” she says. “If we want to do something, we don’t just run out and do it—we have to make sure that our regulators at the CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission] support the actions that we’re taking, as well as to make sure we have external community and internal stakeholder alignment.”

Lately, Vu’s team has received well-won approvals from many angles, most notably for new facilities aimed at improving reliability and safety while also reducing costs—three facets of the business that she says must always work hand-in-hand. A fourth aspect of the equation, energy efficiency, is interrelated with everything that PG&E does. Not only does 19 percent of their energy come from renewable sources, but LEED certification is the baseline standard for all of the company’s new facilities.

"We constantly drill ourselves in all aspects of our operations to be prepared to activate and respond, so that should something happen we can quickly make the public safe and get the power back on." —Helen Vu, Executive Leader For Corporate Real Estate Strategy and Services
“We constantly drill ourselves in all aspects of our operations to be prepared to activate and respond, so that should something happen we can quickly make the public safe and get the power back on.”
—Helen Vu, Executive Leader For Corporate Real Estate Strategy and Services

EDCs and the Smart Grid

All of the organization’s pillars, as Vu calls them, came together neatly last fall when PG&E opened a new electric distribution control center (EDC) in Fresno. The $28.5 million, 24,000-square-foot facility is one of 13 EDCs operated by PG&E in the state, but the first that’s designed specifically to work with the company’s Smart Grid technology.

EDCs are considered part of PG&E’s critical infrastructure system. “They are the backbone of our distribution system,” Vu says. This is where operators control the flow of energy from its source, through the company’s 141,000 miles of electric distribution lines and into businesses, homes, and industries throughout the state. The nature of an energy grid means there are many possible paths for the energy to move from source to point of use, and by managing that movement carefully, PG&E can limit power outages and energy shortages while achieving greater efficiencies in energy use.

In the past, all aspects of energy distribution management were done manually through a combination of technicians working in the field and those who kept tabs on everything back at the EDCs. “Let me characterize it this way,” Vu says. “There are huge maps on the wall, and someone actually puts a pin on the map in an area where we may have a problem around energy distribution.” Starting with the new EDC in Fresno—and two similar facilities soon to open in Rocklin and Concord—all this will be done digitally. “We will know at any given time where there are issues, and any time there is a major emergency, we can redirect distribution from the control center instead of having someone going out and doing it manually,” Vu says.

The technology at the new Fresno EDC is only possible because of PG&E’s investment in Smart Grid infrastructure. Smart Meters, which allow customers to monitor and manage their energy use, are part of that infrastructure, but the information required to automate the distribution of energy also comes from a network of sensing equipment installed throughout the grid. Similarly, making changes to the pattern of energy distribution relies on a network of digital switches that PG&E has placed in the field in recent years.

“Our concept is to be able to manage reliability to the point that we know where the issues are even before someone calls us to say, ‘Look, there’s a problem,’” Vu says. “When it’s 105 degrees in Fresno, the Smart Grid can detect where the greatest loads are and shift distribution where it’s needed.” The new generation of EDCs coming online are bringing PG&E’s recent investments in technology to fruition—which is already leading to more efficient use of energy. The beautiful thing about energy efficiency is that it’s good for both the bottom line and the environment.

A New Command Central for Natural Gas

In addition to PG&E’s 5.4 million electric customer accounts, they serve 4.3 million natural gas accounts and maintain nearly 50,000 miles of pipelines. And just like what the Smart Grid does for electricity distribution, the company has recently invested in automating its natural gas network. It’s an effort aimed at ensuring a safer and more reliable gas system. In December 2013, Vu brought another PG&E milestone to fruition with their new Gas Control Center in San Ramon—the equivalent of the Fresno EDC for the natural gas side of the business.

The $38 million, 55,000-square-foot facility is now the nerve center for gas distribution for the company’s entire 70,000-square-mile service area. A 90-foot-long video wall with interactive “smart boards” allows staff to view, share, and analyze data in real time. The center is digitally connected to allow operators to monitor the system around-the-clock so they can better anticipate and respond to emergency and reliability concerns.

“The Gas Control Center incorporates the latest technology and best-in-class tools in a facility that is designed for 24-hour-a-day operations,” Vu says. “A unique feature of the center is a simulation facility that lets operators practice their responses to a wide range of potential emergency situations. We consistently drill ourselves in all aspects of our operations to be prepared to activate and respond, so that should something happen, we can quickly make the public safe and get the power back on. As our chairman has said, this facility is an essential part of our journey to becoming the safest and most reliable utility in the nation.”

Gas Safety a Priority

Another of Vu’s recent projects is a 30-plus-acre training center for natural gas representatives and technicians, which at press time was scheduled to break ground by the end of 2015. The $75 million facility will be located in the town of Winters, which is between San Francisco and Sacramento, and will consist of a 70,000-square-foot training center and a mock village where real-life simulations can be carried out. The gas technicians of the future will learn how to do everything from reading instruments and operating excavation equipment to detecting gas leaks with technological tools, as well as with their own nose. “This facility will be one of just a few of its kind in the nation,” Vu says. “You name it—anything you want to learn about gas, this will be the academy to go to.”