ABB North America Smart Grid expert reveals market strategies in exclusive interview

Gary Rackliffe talks to SmartGrid Today about HV lines, software and end-to-end solutions

Editor’s note: The following interview was originally published in SmartGrid Today


Acquisition-focused ABB is chasing the “emerging markets” of utility analytics and asset management in North America, Gary Rackliffe, VP of smart grids, North America, at ABB, told us recently in an exclusive interview. “We have a contract with AEP to implement an ‘asset health center’ solution for its entire transmission asset fleet, so we are not just talking about this, we are actually moving forward in implementing the solution.”

The utility analytics market is, in part, growing out of a convergence of operation technology (OT) and IT. The OT part of this is the asset knowledge — the performance models, the algorithms, the service experience, the sensor technology, the substation communication gateways to capture the information,” he said. “And in the IT side of this equation is the business intelligence software and the analytics, the data management and systems integration, enterprise asset management, and driving solutions at the enterprise level.”

Mobile workforce management is part of the solution, too, to manage the field resources performing condition-based maintenance and field inspections.

The work his firm is doing for AEP is “the first solution ABB is implementing at this level, where we are combining our asset knowledge, our service base, our experience, performance models and algorithms and our business intelligence software for the analytics and situational awareness that bridges OT and IT at AEP,” Rackliffe said.

“The asset health center from ABB will interface to the existing third-party enterprise asset management system at AEP,” IBM’s Maximo.

For future deals with utilities, he added, ABB does have in its quiver an enterprise asset management system — from its 2010 $1 billion purchase of the enterprise software and solutions firm Ventyx. The firms have since worked together on multiple IT (Ventyx) and OT (ABB) integration projects for utilities, Rackliffe said.

In the utility analytics market, ABB is going up against not only IBM but KEMA and SAP, too. After the ABB acquisition, Ventyx acquired Obvient and its Focal Point business intelligence software that provides the backbone for the asset health center with its data management, analytics, visualization and integration capabilities.

Focal Point gives the asset health center “ETL” functionality — the extract-transform-load capability to pull in data from multiple sources, he added.

Going beyond transmission

ABB is also reaching “beyond transmission equipment,” Rackliffe said. “At AEP, our primary focus is on high-voltage breakers, power transformers and substation battery health. But our medium voltage [MV] businesses are also implementing asset health management solutions — particularly for switchgear and also outdoor breakers.

“We are expanding the sensor base, the service experience base, the performance models and algorithms to MV — or distribution equipment,” and ABB is using the same business intelligence software tools for the analytics.

Utilities are putting sensors and monitors “on key T&D equipment to determine status or condition of the assets,” Rackliffe noted. The challenge is to capture that information and systematically process it so that specific actions can be done to drive the performance of the assets.

ABB also bought Tropos Networks, last year. That gave the firm its own communications platform to reach the devices in the field such as load-tap changers; line voltage regulators and capacitor banks for volt-VAR optimization; reclosers; DA switches, and various sensor technology for fault detection, isolation and restoration, Rackliffe said.

Soon after buying Tropos last year, Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) hired ABB to supply it with a wireless IP mesh network (SGT, Aug-30).

“We are looking at an end-to-end solution,” he added. “We recognize that many utilities are implementing communications as part of AMI, so in some instances we have to use third-party communications.”

For Houston IOU CenterPoint Energy, “we’re using the existing AMI data backhaul communications for DA. This enables the advanced DMS [distribution management system] from Ventyx to communicate with ABB reclosers as part of CenterPoint’s ADMS [automated DMS] and intelligent grid projects.

“But with the acquisition of Tropos, we now have our own wide-area wireless broadband communications that will support distribution grid management. We can offer our distribution management system and SCADA from Ventyx, communications from Tropos and DA equipment and sensors from our power products division.”

Complexity abounds

For distribution grid management, the firm integrated into a common software system advanced applications for outage management, fault detection/isolation/restoration and volt-VAR optimization. “Now we are integrating Ventyx’ mobile workforce management and outage management system to better enable system restoration, particularly during major storms,” Rackliffe said.

The firm is integrating software to manage distributed energy resources (DER), “so we can model, forecast, aggregate and create virtual power plants,” he said. “DERs impact distribution operations and we are addressing this issue with our IT integration to the DMS platform.”

Feeders are impacted by volt-VAR optimization, DG, DR, energy storage, EVs and microgrids. “We are looking at how this impacts the operations of the distribution grid and how these DER technologies, when aggregated, can be monetized at the generation portfolio level and/or the energy market level.”

ABB is integrating its DMS at the enterprise level to MDM (meter data management) systems — such as those offered by Ecologic Analytics and Elster — to provide outage notification, restoration verification, voltage measurements and data for loss analysis, load allocation and other advanced applications.

The emergence of EV charging is partly responsible for utilities’ added interest in MV asset monitoring and management, he added. ABB is on the case in this market, too. The firm bought Epyon and took a $10 million equity investment in Ecotality. “With Epyon, we’re providing DC, fast-charging station infrastructure,” he said.

The engineering giant also this fall installed EV fast-chargers in the Danish administrative districts of Jutland and Zealand (SGT, Nov-29). And ABB’s Terra 51 DC fast charger in August earned the seal of safety and protection from Underwriters Laboratories (SGT, Aug-17).

Storage is promising

ABB in the last two years expanded its energy-storage portfolio to offer battery energy storage solutions ranging from 25 KWs and 50 KWHs for community energy storage (CES) to 40+ MWs at the transmission level.

“An example is a CES project we have with Duke Energy using repurposed batteries from Chevy Volts,” Rackliffe said. The unit can deliver 25 KWs of power and 50 KWHs of energy “to power all the support lighting and audiovisual equipment in an ‘off-grid’ structure” that the partners used for a fresh demo this fall (SGT, Nov-16).

There is high growth potential with energy storage, he added. “But it’s sort of like solar PV, we need to get some cost reduction out of the batteries. We’re getting close to the tipping point on the cost side. The car manufacturers are helping us with their focus on driving down the cost of lithium-ion batteries.”

ABB in September introduced a solar-plant controller and grid interface that allows control of voltage, frequency, real power, reactive power, power factor and ramp-up generation rate (SGT, Sep-05).

MV work is global

ABB has been working on MV grids in other parts of the world such as a smart grid pilot in Reken, North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany, where a “multi-agent system” in MV network operation allows integration of DG devices in MV and LV networks (SGT, Sep-17).

ABB is also working with Telvent and Vattenfall on smart metering for a Swedish project (SGT, Nov-16).

And the firm is working with Eaton to develop technology for LV and MV in two of five pilot AMI projects by the Smart Energy Collective, a Dutch effort (SGT, Oct-19).

Impacting its smart grid business more broadly, ABB also recently bought Tennessee-based low-voltage device-maker Thomas & Betts ($3.9 billion) and Arkanasas-based industrial motors and generators maker Baldor Electric ($4.1 billion), making the US ABB’s largest market for the first time in the firm’s 130-year history.

The sensor technology that came with Thomas & Betts will help ABB with monitoring distribution systems and fault current indicators, for example, Rackliffe noted.

ABB also recently acquired Australia-based PowerCorp that specializes in microgrids — both remotely located or off-grid ones and grid-connected versions. “We are seeing that segment of the market starting to grow,” he added.

In the last two years, ABB spent $10 million on a “smart grid center of excellence,” a testing lab and demo center in North Carolina, where utilities can verify operations of smart grid equipment before field deployment.

The North American market for smart grid business is very appealing, simply due to the sheer size and potential of the market, Rackliffe said.

Transmission still key

In the transmissions space, “as it pertains to smart grid, ABB is working on the integration of renewables, which tend not to be located near load centers,” Rackliffe said. That means high voltage direct current (HVDC) technology is used. And offshore wind with longer cables requires HVDC technology, he added.

ABB views “technology that enables you to better control, manage and operate the transmission grid as part of our smart grid portfolio.” And the firm is seeing “sustained growth in FACTS [flexible AC transmission solutions] and more applications of our HVDC technology.” BC Hydro last summer gave ABB a $55 million FACTS order (SGT, Jul-05).

The firm in recent months developed the world’s first circuit breaker for HVDC (SGT, Nov-08). And ABB built a new, $100 million factory for high voltage transmission cables, “which represents our belief in the market growth,” he added, noting that the facility opened in September in North Carolina.


Interested in reading related articles?

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© 2013 Modern Markets Intelligence Inc..  IMPORTANT: This article was reproduced from the January 22, 2013 issue of Smart Grid Today with the limited permission of the owner.  To view the full story on Smart Grid Today’s website





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Norma Guentert

I am a communications manager within the Smart Grids team at ABB
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