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Sephir Hamilton is helping his organization grapple with major change. As the engineering and technology innovation officer at Seattle City Light, Hamilton says the city-owned utility is emerging from decades of relatively modest technological change into a time when it seems everything is changing at once.

And recently Seattle City Light has been going through some major changes of its own in the cloud.

Sephir Hamilton, Engineering and Technology Innovation Officer at Seattle City Light.

“For the last 100 years, the most exciting thing was the battle between Edison and Tesla over whether DC or AC would win the day,” Hamilton explains. “We were focused on the efficiency of generating plants that were hundreds of miles away and how we would step down to voltage you can use at your home.”

But now, utility technologies are flourishing. These include wind and solar power generation, high-capacity battery power storage and advanced metering devices in homes that can provide utility operators with a far more precise picture of what is happening on the grid at any single moment.

This requires more local and real-time data than utility companies have ever needed before. For example, now that individual homes with solar panels are contributing electricity back to the grid and becoming part of an increasingly rich and diverse set of local power generation sources, the old models for analyzing electricity use and predicting future needs don’t work as well.

Enter the cloud. Utilities such as Seattle City Light are looking to keep pace with change using high-powered computing, storage and data analysis services in the cloud — making sense of all the data flowing in from sensors and increasingly distributed power sources. So in 2014, Hamilton and his team worked with Cincinnati, Ohio-based planning and load forecasting application producer Integral Analytics to deploy Seattle City Light’s implementation of its LoadSEER solution to the cloud on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

According to Kevin Kushman, chief operating officer at Integral Analytics, the move to AWS made sense as a way to take this complex application to the cloud.

Kevin Kushman, chief operating officer at Integral Analytics.

“The journey from more of a traditional desktop app was based on the requirement to do more computational processing against larger and more complex data sets,” he said. “The default for cloud computing and storage (in 2014) was AWS and (it offered) market-tested apps and processes.”

However, Kushman said that Integral Analytics started thinking about AWS alternatives in 2015 as the needs of its clients (including Seattle City Light) started to grow tremendously. The company ended up shifting to Microsoft Azure.

AWS remains the clear market leader in the public cloud overall. Each cloud giant boasts regular customer wins, and the needs of business customers vary widely depending on the circumstances. However, Integral’s decision-making process demonstrates how Microsoft has been building its own momentum by leveraging its longtime enterprise technology expertise. The company has publicly touted the Integral decision as a customer win in its ongoing marketing battle with Amazon Web Services, which has its own long list of customer success stories.

“Once processing volume/use cases expanded and additional storage flexibility/data warehousing options were required, we started looking at alternatives in late 2015,” Kushman told GeekWire. “Our diligence involved testing data import/ingestion and variable cost impacts of SQL Data Warehouse as well as utilizing Azure Batch for processing in 2016. Our decision to move cloud componentry to Azure as a company was made in the third quarter of 2016.”

Another factor at play in the move from AWS to Azure, he said, was the need to have a solid security story as customers worked to move their data and applications from on-premises data centers to the cloud in a way that allowed customers to maintain control.

“Moving processes out of an owned data center is a significant process,” he said. “We had to provide assurances on security – and looking at AWS and Azure, we started evaluating Azure. As we migrated over to Azure, we were able to use it to fine-tune how we were making queries and hone the way we were able to deliver information and analytics back to our customers.”

The cloud/hosted implementation of LoadSEER at Seattle City Light runs on Microsoft Azure.

Seattle City Light’s Hamilton said the cloud-based implementation leaves him able to do much better planning for the utility. “We (used to) plan for growth by looking at meter reading for a few load centers in Excel — or on paper — and would add a safety margin and then plan to add bigger wires and more capacity based on that,” he recalled. “We now need much more of a scalpel approach. and the ability to synthesize much more data.”

He said that as the city moves to a much more “distributed grid,” where there is much more accurate data available on both use and generation from each home, it needs the cloud-based tools and power that make good use of all that data.

“We will need tools like this to make better decisions in real time in a much more efficient way to prepare for this shift from central power to distributed power,” Hamilton explained. “It is too early to report on benefits yet, but as we deploy these tools, we can be much more surgical in how we deploy our $280+ million annual transmission and distribution capital budget and ensure that every dollar we invest will deliver the highest possible levels of safety and electric reliability.”

Seattle EV charging
A City of Seattle electric vehicle at a charging station. (Kristi McClean via seattle.gov)

The advent of electric cars — and the growth of local charging stations for those cars — is making the picture even more complex. These electric cars not only take a fair amount of electricity to charge, but they are now being considered by utility companies as a possible source of backup power to smooth out electrical needs throughout the local grid. This would come about by making use of stored power within electric cars.

Hamilton explained, “The interesting thing about electric vehicles is that they have enough battery storage to almost run your home for a day. So we have to look at the electricity demand to charge them and potentially discharge them. If there were the ability to partner on optimizing the grid using these vehicles as distributed energy storage, it’s a game changer.”

Hamilton is thinking about the charging infrastructure that Seattle City Light provides for electric cars and how that might evolve going forward. “What is the role of a utility? Should we be building infrastructure to support charging – or should we allow private industry to do that? If it was just charging (stations for electric cars), I don’t know if there’s much of a role for the utility.”

But Kushman elaborated on the notion of how utility companies may start to use electric cars as a way of creating greater capacity on the distributed grid. “There could be pockets of callable resources,” he said. “You could see a tiered structure for ownership of electric vehicles – (so that a utility) could have a call on the power in a vehicle if they know you’re not going to drive it for more than 50 miles in a day.”

If it happens, the cloud will no doubt play a central role.

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