Podcast / Audio

Episode #75: 'Highlighting What Large Power Providers Can Learn from Smaller Municipal Utilities' with Brian Groth, Director of Electric Utility at City of Naperville [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

Posted to Energy Central in the Utility Management Group
image credit: Energy Central
Energy Central  Podcasts's picture
Voices of The Community Energy Central

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

  • Member since 2020
  • 84 items added with 162,616 views
  • Mar 29, 2022
  • 1100 views

The vast majority of utility customers (around three quarters) in the United States are served by investor-owned utilities, with each of those IOUs being larger in size than their municipal or electric cooperative counterparts. That said, there are so many more individual organizations that identify as publicly-owned and/or municipal utilities. While each of those small utilities may have a smaller footprint, that means there are thousands more of these smaller organizations that are each connecting with their communities, piloting new programs, and solving real problems. While it may be natural to assume that the larger utilities are the ones on the cutting edge, the reality is that many pushing-the-envelope advancements are starting at the municipality level.

Your access to Member Features is limited.

With that in mind, the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast wanted to bring on a representative from such a municipal utility to drill into what the larger power providers can and should be learning from them. To do so, this episode features an insightful conversation with Brian Groth, the Director of the Electric Utility at the City of Naperville in Illinois. Brian and his team at the City of Naperville have been busy advancing fiber optic technology, smart grid capabilities, and more at the community level, and so he joins the discussion with podcast host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to tap into his best lessons learned. 

Prefer to Read vs. Listening? Scroll Down to Read Transcript.

Thanks to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

Key Links

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast, the show that brings leading minds to discuss the latest challenges and trends, transforming and modernizing the energy systems, and the utility of the future. And a quick thank you to West Monroe, our sponsor of today's show. Now, let's talk energy.

Jason Price: 
I'm Jason Price, Energy Central Podcast host and director with West Monroe, coming to you from New York City. With me as always, from Orlando, Florida is Energy Central producer and community manager, Matt Chester. Matt, we've spent a number of episodes talking to major investor own utilities and other big companies in our industry. But I contend that we have just as much to learn from the utilities with a smaller footprint. Wouldn't you agree?

Matt Chester: 
You're absolutely right, Jason. So while the major players, the IOUs, in the utility industry provide something around three quarters of the power in the United States, they're outnumbered by leaps and bounds by the quantity of smaller utilities. While there are 168 IOUs, cooperatives total 812, and publicly owned utilities, including municipalities, total nearly 2000. That difference obviously comes from the scale of major IOUs compared with Munis, but the number of Munis operating goes to show that there are countless new ideas and programs being piloted first in these more community centered, publicly owned utilities. And yeah, I think there's immense number of opportunities to learn from them.

Jason Price: 
That's right. And all those reasons are why we're particularly excited for today's guest who joins us from one of the great municipal utilities, the electric utility at city of Naperville in Illinois. Specifically, we're going to be joined by Brian Groth, director of said utility, and we're eager to hear the types of initiatives and perspectives he can share as he supports the servicing of over 60,000 residential and commercial customers. Brian has been with Naperville for 16 years, where he started his career as hands on as you can, an automation and communications engineer focused on all sorts of technologies that were breaking through at the time, including fiber optics, SCADA, smart grids, and more. He's worked his way up through the ranks, and today as director, he's helping to call the shots about the direction of this forward looking and progressive municipal utility. Brian has seen an evolution in his utility over the past 16 years, and we're excited to have him take us on that journey as well as provide his unique perspective, starting in the technical weeds and while proudly working for a smaller provider. So with that, Brian Groth, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

Brian Groth: 
Thank you so much for having me here virtually today. I'm so excited to share this story of the city of Naperville's electric utility.

Jason Price: 
Terrific. And we're glad to have you here. So we mentioned it a bit in the intro, but can you tell us more about the area you serve and what your role is as director at the city of Naperville?

Brian Groth: 
Absolutely. Naperville, Illinois, is a town about 40 miles west of the city of Chicago with about 150,000 residents. The city owns its electric utility and where, as you noted before, we're one of about 2000 municipally owned electric utilities across the country. We pride ourselves on the service we provide our customers at very competitive electric rates. I've been in the of director for over a year now, and having worked for the city for 16 years, I'm responsible for all facets of the utility. We have seven sections within the utility, all led by great managers and two deputy directors that help with the day to day operations and planning.

Jason Price: 
That's great. And we teased in the intro was the fact that you started as an automation and communication engineer. So how did those early days in the role shape the way you approach being a director today?

Brian Groth: 
I certainly did start out in the electric utility as an automation and communication electrical engineer. It really provided me with an opportunity to jump into the electric utility world. I graduated college at a time when most electrical engineers were going into the software programming field or being hired by accounting firms. Yep. That's right. Accounting firms. They had a specific interest in how engineers thought, but when you asked about was it a great way to get into utility? Absolutely. The utility world's been really good to me, and that role as automation and communication really helped me learn the fundamentals of the substation environment. As I moved from A&C engineer to leading substation engineering and being part of the infrastructure build out that supports the AMI platforms that we have today. It's been a great 16 years at the city of Naperville. We're definitely small enough to see a project from concept to completion and having a robust capital program means that once a need is identified, a pilot typically follows in short order and full rollout is only a few years beyond that.

Jason Price: 
I'm curious about some of the big issues in the industry. So let's talk a little about the nuts and bolts. With your experience in smart grid technology and the focus on grid mod and the development since FERC 2222, what changes are you looking to implement, or have you already implemented some of these in your service area?

Brian Groth: 
So back in 2010, we were fortunate to receive an American recovery and reinvestment act, which led us to build out our automated metering infrastructure, also known as AMI. This really was a turning point for the utility. We moved from having a robust SCADA system that controlled our 16 substations to having 60,000 endpoints, otherwise known as meters, communicating 15 minute load, voltage, and power quality data back to our head end systems. Shortly after our AMI deployment, we were able deploy conservation voltage reduction to all of our 12 KV feeders. We were among the first in the country to do this. The CVR program allows our customers to save money without any intervention on their behalf. We use our electric meters to adjust our substation voltages, saving money, as well as wear and tear in our equipment. This year, we're deploying an outage management system and in the near future, we'll be implementing a distribution management system, which will allow us to more efficiently operate the grid as renewable and other resources get added.

Matt Chester: 
Brian, if I can jump in here, you mentioned the 2010 stimulus and just as a follow up, it makes me wonder about some of the spending that's being discussed in the Build Back Better Act, whatever form that might take moving forward. Is this something that you and your team are monitoring and are there any types of provisions that you might be keeping an eye on to come from that, whether it's in grid monetization or any other space?

Brian Groth: 
We absolutely are. So we're taking a look at not only Build Back Better, but the infrastructure act that was recently passed by Congress to help remove some of these projects from the rate base and get federal funding to help us move some other initiatives forward, just like battery storage technology, but the core utility spend, we're looking at using these dollars to increase the number of underground lines that we have. Currently we're 94% underground, and we'd love to get that as close to 100% as we can.

Jason Price: 
That's great. Can you dig a little bit further in terms of the decision process and implications of getting these funded, considering that you're a community based municipal utility?

Brian Groth: 
So from what we've heard is that being a community based municipally owned electric utility, we sit favorably in this position. The dollars that come to us for these types of projects will be directly reinvested in the community. And so we look forward to the end of the year when we expect that we'll see the rules and regulations around these grant funding opportunities. We'd like to do some more work in the areas of distribution automation, cyber security, increasing our fiber footprint within the city. As I mentioned before, really putting some large amount of dollars towards undergrounding our overhead facilities within the city. Not only does it make sense from a reliability perspective, but it really does help beautify our neighborhoods.

Jason Price: 
Let's stay on the topic a little bit more about being a small utility. I imagine that having local funding and control means that you have a bit more flexibility than the red tape that typically a large utility has to go through. So is that true? And if so, what freedom does that give you, being a small utility?

Brian Groth: 
So being a smaller electric utility that's funded locally and does not have any profit margins, we see a project go from concept to completion pretty quickly. We have 16 electrical substations around the city. So once we have a pilot completed, we can get to those 16 substations, depending on project scope, pretty quickly, and that not on only benefits the community, but it also benefits all of the employees of the utility so that we can see how our project's going to impact everything. And then we'll deploy it. And then overall, we exist for the community. We're within the community and we exist for the community.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, that's a good segue way to my next question, which is really along lines of just sort of the accountability and transparency. So with IOUs, you've got both the shareholders you have to please, as well as the regulators. What's the dynamic for a small utility for Naperville, who do you have to please and answer to?

Brian Groth: 
So ultimately we answer to our customers, our public utility advisory board, and ultimately the city council. I'll often get text messages about a streetlight that's out or a power outage. We have crews out on the streetlight the same day or the next day, and then power outages are addressed by 24/7 crews in combination with our control room who keeps everyone safe. Our city website shows our open checkbook and we have a thorough budget vetting process by our city council.

Jason Price: 
Another question about being small utility, is there any overlap in times of need or disaster where you're getting support from the bigger public utilities nearby, like for example, ComEd, and do you ever find your crews going and helping out in the ComEd territory when the need calls for it?

Brian Groth: 
We have mutual aid agreements through our power provider, Illinois Municipal Electric Agency and Illinois Municipal Utilities Association. IMEA and IMUA, which help us in times of need. We often are sending a crew or two when a tornado comes through one of the other towns that's part of these agencies. We're very fortunate in that, like I said before, we're 94% underground. So luckily, wind doesn't necessarily affect us as much as some of the other towns. Now, that being said, we did have a tornado roll through the city of Naperville in June of last year. And we were able to respond with our own crews as well as with a few of our contractors.

Jason Price: 
Yeah, that makes, But at the same time, since you're underground, if it goes out, then it must be something serious, right? The resilience takes a little bit longer to get back on your feet.

Brian Groth: 
Absolutely. The directors that have come before me have really embraced redundant feeds. So a great majority of our system is looped, which allows us to switch around a problem and take care of it in the morning, as we like to say.

Jason Price: 
That's great. I love your passion. All right. So all utilities are at a critical point in evolution with sustainability, reliability, digitalization, and more so. Looking forward, what sorts of programs are you looking to roll out over the next five years or so?

Brian Groth: 
Yeah, it's amazing to see all the changes to the utility in the city of Naperville in the past 16 years since I started. It's incredible to think about what we can accomplish over even the next five years. 30 years ago, who would've thought that we would be controlling substation bus voltages with residential electric meters. I really look forward to our deployment of an outage management system this year. It will really allow us to measure our utility indices with much more efficiency as well as hone our outage response times. Using the system to manage our outages, create switching routines and let our customers know through our website when they should expect their power to be restored is going to be a huge benefit for everyone, the utilities, our customers, and our business customers. I do have to admit that our state indices for the last year were around 13 minutes. So fortunately our customers won't have to be looking at our website too often.

Brian Groth: 
Looking further down the road, I think Naperville will become its own microgrid sooner rather than later. That's to say the utility is actively looking at technologies which will allow us better balance the generation resources within the city with its outside supply. Trying to manage our peaks through a demand response program now for our large customers and using our CVR system to push service voltages lower during times of peak demand, this reduces the capacity needed to be procured on our behalf and reduces transmission cost to our customers. We're looking to implement a battery storage pilot towards the end of this year. And recently our energy partner, Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, working with the city, installed the one megawatt solar facility near our waste treatment plant. This is on top of the over five megawatt of rooftop solar in the city already. Electric vehicles are taking off in our city. We currently have over 1700 and at some point in the future, it would be great to give residents the option to help shave our peaks with the vehicle sitting in their garage. Having all these resources working in concert to supply our customers with reliable power is certainly where we're headed.

Jason Price: 
That is really interesting. We need to check back with you in a year and see how the microgrid program is developing.

Brian Groth: 
Absolutely.

Jason Price: 
Fantastic. So before we let you go, we've got what we call the lightning round, which gives us an opportunity and our listeners an opportunity to learn a little bit more about Brian Groth. So, we have a series of questions we want to ask you, and you can keep it to one word or phrase. Are you ready?

Brian Groth: 
I think this'll be the toughest part of the conversation, but I am.

Jason Price: 
No, it'll be fun. All right. Favorite snack at the convenience store or gas station?

Brian Groth: 
It has to be funyuns.

Jason Price: 
What's your preferred way to recharge your batteries after a long day?

Brian Groth: I love fishing with my three kids. One loves to catch the fish, one likes to let it go, and the other one, well, he likes to chase the other one with the worms.

Jason Price: 
What would your career path have been if you didn't get into the utility industry?

Brian Groth: 
Well, in school, I studied digital control systems and I think, had the opportunity to work at the city of Naperville not opened up, I think I'd be working in the controls arena.

Jason Price: 
Who was your hero growing up?

Brian Groth: 
Batman.

Jason Price: 
What makes you most optimistic?

Brian Groth: 
I think I'm most optimistic about the utility industry as a whole. There's lots of conversations in the industry about sustainability. I think it's great for everyone. There's new technology coming to the market almost every month, and it'll be so exciting to see these technologies that let us finally integrate all the renewable energy sources with battery technology.


Jason Price: 
Well done. Thank you for giving us time and a bit more of an insight. And before we let at you go, we'd like to give you the final words. So, you're talking to your peers in the industry, what would you like them to take away about the work you're doing and the role you're playing at Naperville?

Brian Groth: 
I'd love for everyone to embrace sustainability in all facets of the organization. We may not all agree on 35% renewables by 2035 or any of those targets, but I think as long as the industry is working towards goals and being transparent about how we can and how we should be meeting those goals, I think that everyone and all of our customers will be in a better place.

Jason Price: 
Well stated, thanks for sharing. Great conversation. We're eager to stay in touch and perhaps, like I said, we'll have you back in a year and check in on things. So thank you again for giving us your insight and your time today, Brian.

Brian Groth: 
Thank you for your time.

Jason Price: 
Well, you can always reach Brian through the Energy Central platform where he welcomes your questions and comments. We also want to give a shout up of thanks to the podcast sponsors that made today's episode possible. Thanks to West Monroe. West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities in their telecommunication, grid modernization, and digital and workforce transformations. West Monroe brings a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations, and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, data analytics, and cybersecurity. Once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com, and we'll see you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. At least twice monthly, we connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network community member to discuss compelling topics that impact professionals who work in the power industry. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ is the premiere podcast series from Energy Central, a Power Industry Network of Communities built specifically for professionals in the electric power industry and a place where professionals can share, learn, and connect in a collaborative environment. Supported by leading industry organizations, our mission is to help global power industry professionals work better. Since 1995, we’ve been a trusted news and information source for professionals working in the power industry, and today our managed communities are a place for lively discussions, debates, and analysis to take place. If you’re not yet a member, visit www.EnergyCentral.com to register for free and join over 200,000 of your peers working in the power industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

Happy listening, and stay tuned for our next episode! Like what you hear, have a suggestion for future episodes, or a question for our guest? Leave a note in the comments below.

All new episodes of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast will be posted to the relevant Energy Central community group, but you can also subscribe to the podcast at all the major podcast outlets, including:


Thanks once again to the sponsor of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West Monroe

Discussions
Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Mar 29, 2022

Worth listening to. I like his point at the end about sustainability - whatever the goal is, we all need to be working toward sustainability. Well stated, Brian. I agree.

Brian Groth's picture
Brian Groth on Apr 1, 2022

I think a point that we often miss is that sustainability is a culture, its not a project that ends at the end of a calendar or fiscal year. Sustainability is part of continuous improvement. New technology will always be available and there will always be more sustainable ways of doing all facets of our business, we try to embrace them and look for ways to make change every day.   

Steven Brisley's picture
Steven Brisley on Apr 4, 2022

Great discussion. I enjoyed hearing "I think Naperville will become its own microgrid sooner rather than later. That's to say the utility is actively looking at technologies which will allow us better balance the generation resources within the city with its outside supply."

It seems extremely practical to leverage the generation and demand-side flexibility available within the community to help improve operational efficiency and save $. And with their focus on community needs, I think munis (and co-ops) have a great opportunity to lead in that area. Thanks Brian!

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »