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Smart grid provides resiliency, energy savings in Sault Ste. Marie

Award-winning project is the first of its kind in Canada

An award-winning smart grid for Sault Ste. Marie's PUC Services Inc. gives the city a more resilient power supply that's ready for the clean energy transition, according to project lead Black & Veatch.

The smart grid earned the Innovation Excellence Award from the Electricity Distributors Association, an Ontario-based industry advocacy group. It was called “a groundbreaking solution for sustainable energy” as Canada’s first community-wide smart grid.

“It sets the foundation for the information that lets all of the devices and everybody involved understand what’s happening on the grid," according to Gary Johnson, Black & Veatch’s regional general manager for Eastern Canada, who spoke to Sustainable Biz Canada. "You don’t have to physically see that something’s happened, the devices all communicate that."

Additionally, a smart grid prepares for a future encompassing renewable energy, distributed energy, battery storage and electric vehicles where electricity flows both ways and not in just one direction.

Black & Veatch, headquartered in Overland Park, Kan. is an engineering, consulting and construction firm with Canadian offices in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. It is part of the team developing the Point Tupper hydrogen and ammonia facility in Nova Scotia, and other renewable energy projects in Canada.

Canada’s first community smart grid

Johnson said PUC reached out to Black & Veatch approximately six years ago to incorporate the company’s smart grid technology. The city is “quite innovative” and recognized the benefits for resiliency and energy savings for its customers, he added.

Engineering and procurement of the smart grid was done by Black & Veatch, with local construction firms helping out. PUC assisted with the planning and design.

Installation took place from 2021 to 2023, starting with the central control system, called the "head end". The COVID-19 pandemic “threw everybody for a bit of a loop” creating supply chain disruptions and other hurdles, but the project was finished on schedule, Johnson said.

There was no need for PUC to swap out critical systems, according to Johnson, but the smart grid did require upgrades like integrating multiple systems into one head end and training PUC staff on the new platform.

The smart grid covers all of PUC's 35,000 customers.

How the smart grid helps Sault Ste. Marie

Fundamental to a smart grid, Johnson explained, is the combination of communications infrastructure that lets devices such as sensors "talk" with the head end about information regarding voltages and power. The data is analyzed and used to optimize grid performance.

The upgrade has prepared Sault Ste. Marie’s grid for the complexities of a more sustainable energy mix.

“This is foundational in terms of being ready now to support distributed energy devices, two-way power flow, battery storage, electric vehicles, solar on the infrastructure. That’s the big step change here, it’s moving from one-way power flow to being ready for multiple directions of power within that grid.”

For example, if more homeowners install solar roofs, that power will have to be distributed, metered and accounted for. Instead of a one-way grid, where power moved only from the utility to the customer, a two-way flow means the customer can be a source of clean power.

Another key advantage is resiliency. The improved data coverage means outages can be detected nearly instantly, reducing downtimes. A smart grid can also intervene automatically, “healing itself” as Johnson said.

If there is a fault on a grid, the software can recognize the problem and reroute around the affected building or area, isolating the fault so fewer customers are affected.

The smart grid is helping Sault Ste. Marie save over 2,800 tons of carbon dioxide per year and creating over three per cent in energy savings compared to its pre-smart-grid days, according to Johnson.

As harsh storms have battered Ontario, the city’s timing was “phenomenal,” Johnson said. Fewer power disruptions, to fewer customers, can also increase productivity by avoiding downtime for industry and commercial businesses.

Since fitting the smart grid into PUC, Black & Veatch has received interest in the technology from other Canadian municipalities. He did say, however, many of the queries have been for either the communications infrastructure or the head-end systems, depending on the needs of the local utility.

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