Seattle City Light is a publicly owned utility that serves more than 400,000 customers and is the largest municipal utility in the Pacific Northwest. Over the past several years, Seattle City Light has been developing a smart grid vision and plan that included advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology, distribution and substation automation projects, and various information and decision-making support systems.
Seattle City Light recognized the importance of having the right technology as a foundation for integrating its various systems and realizing some of the true business and consumer benefits of a smart grid. We have all the right building blocks, including a vision and some significant technology investments, but we lack the funding to move ahead with all of our plans at this time. The availability of grants through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act really provides the opportunity to approach this effort in the right way—investing in the latest and most appropriate technologies for the future and integrating all the necessary pieces rather than just pursuing standalone projects.
While Seattle City Light has good technical expertise in house and a sound vision, we realized we could use some help to document our business case in the manner necessary to support the grant application. We also simply did not have the resources to prepare all of the necessary documentation required. The concept of a smart grid differs significantly from organization to organization; the benefits to an investor-owned utility will not necessarily be the same for a municipal utility, and the systems that work for one utility may not work for another. We knew this would be a highly individualized process, and it would take a significant effort to pull it all together in a compelling application.
About a year prior, we met West Monroe Partners and were impressed with the Energy & Utilities team’s depth of experience in smart grid technologies and its experience with similar processes. What we liked about West Monroe Partners is the combination of technical and business expertise in the same group of people. Many consultants can offer great expertise related to either the technologies or business planning and business case development, but we felt that West Monroe Partners could support us with all aspects of this project.
As part of its S-GAP approach, West Monroe Partners had some established tools and processes that enabled us to consolidate a massive amount of data about various needs and projects and use it as the foundation for our application. We began by interviewing stakeholders from all aspects of the organization—finance, engineering, IT, and others—and then used this input to identify project and resource requirements and estimated costs. Because many of these technologies are new, and the benefits for a particular utility may vary according to its operations, there is a lack of cost-benefit information documented to date. West Monroe Partners’ experience helped considerably.
We expected this effort to be challenging, and it sure was. Seattle City Light formed the proposal team that worked on the grant application. This team worked really hard and spent long hours developing this application. One of the things that helped most was having strong executive sponsorship. Our executives went into this process understanding the importance of executing our smart grid vision, and they gave this the same high priority as more immediate business issues. In addition, involving all of our stakeholders early on was very beneficial. Like many organizations, we have certain functions that tend to operate in silos. We were very careful to work across silos to gather input—enabling a lot of people to contribute ideas into the process. This produced a lot of very valuable ideas and enabled everyone to feel they had a stake in the design. At the same time, though, we took steps to keep our project team to a manageable size, which was necessary to maintain our focus and complete the project by the application deadline.
In developing a smart grid plan and business case, you can’t overestimate the importance of experience. Our internal teams have a lot of experience, but pulling it all together to present a cohesive plan—particularly for the first time and on highly condensed schedule—is a very substantial effort. Without the benefit of West Monroe Partners’ experience and established tools and its collaborative approach that helped us break down silos within our own organization, we would not have been able to complete the application on time.
In early September, we received the news from Department of Energy (DOE) that our application has made it though the compliance review and moved to the second review phase. While we are still waiting to hear about the grant, we feel very good about our proposal. In the end, we did not just present a system-specific approach that we know we can complete in 36 months; we presented a holistic solution that can deliver tremendous value—creating the foundation for serving our citizens for the next generation or more.
One significant benefit that resulted from developing this proposal is that we now have a very solid roadmap that we will follow—and one that our organization is committed to implementing. Furthermore, we did not look at the application as the end of this process. Since the deadline, we have continued to work on developing our internal teams, putting together our project management office, evaluating vendors, and refining our plans. A grant award simply will enable us to jump right in and start—and we are ready to do just that!
Michael Pesin is the chief smart grid architect for Seattle City Light, responsible for addressing and integrating all new technologies into the organization’s strategy and operations.