Salt River Project consolidates testing functions with new innovation lab

May 8, 2021

by Peter Maloney
May 8, 2021

Arizona public power utility Salt River Project (SRP) recently began operation of its new utility innovation testing laboratory.

The 5,400 square foot Technology Innovation Lab in Scottsdale, Ariz., provides space for SRP employees and contractors working in a variety of functions across the public power utility, including telecommunications; distribution integration; distribution operations; protection, automation and control; power delivery engineering; and power delivery technology services.

“The lab will support the day-to-day activities of these teams as well as longer term testing, proof of concept, and vendor evaluation efforts of new software and hardware solutions to see firsthand how these will work in an isolated environment before fully deploying across SRP’s system,” Tait Willis, director of protection, automation and control at SRP, said in a statement.

The new lab consolidates the lab space that SRP already had. The utility used to have six labs. It now has three. Four of the former labs are now housed in the new lab and two labs – one for customer programs for things such as smart thermostats, the other tests metering technologies– remain at separate locations, though they are being connected to the new lab so they can participate in tests that better replicate the breadth of the utility’s operations.

There was some discussion about bringing all the labs under one roof but limiting the scope of the project made the costs more manageable, Kyle Cormier, director of telecommunications systems at SRP, said. In the past, many of those labs were siloed; now “the new lab provides a more cohesive space for testing and training.”

The new lab also has a small classroom space where vendors and SRP teams can conduct training sessions with engineers and technicians. “Training is a huge area of focus for this lab space,” Willis said. SRP’s engineers and technicians needed “a central space where employees can come to learn maintenance and commissioning practices in a safe environment.”

The idea of creating a single lab for the whole utility had been under discussion at SRP for nearly a decade, but the concept really came together about three or four years ago when SRP hired a consultant to conduct a cyber penetration test. It turned out it was hard to run a useful version of the test because the representations of the utility’s system at the various labs were not consistent.

Instead of testing the robustness of the utility’s cyber security measures, the test showed that the various labs did not accurately reflect the reality of the utility’s system, Cormier said. It became apparent that the utility needed to have “more integration to do end-to-end testing that can look at the system as a whole.”

After about two years of planning, construction of the Technology Innovation Lab began in December of 2019, and it began operation in April 2021.

SRP’s protection, automation, and control department is one of the departments that has already started using the lab’s capabilities. In collaboration with Intel and other utilities, SRP’s team is in the early stages of running tests to evaluate the benefits of virtualizing substation systems.

In the past, substation controls were mostly electro-mechanical with different functions controlled by separate computers. In that configuration, adding a relay to a substation requires a lot of rewiring and physical integration.

If those functions can be virtualized, that is, replicated using software instead of adding another box with dedicated controls to the substation, the utility would be able to perform the same function by adding a new application.

From SRP’s perspective, a virtualized solution would help standardize substation hardware, consolidate and centralize functionality, improve employee safety, and reduce capital investment, as well as operation and maintenance costs.

SRP’s telecom engineering department is using the lab to test firmware for Field Area Network (FAN) Tier 2 radios as a way of improving two-way communications for connected devices. The tests are designed to help determine if new firmware solutions improve communication with SRP’s devices in hard-to-reach areas.

“Right now, we can send information to the device, but we don’t get anything back,” Cormier said. “Two-way communications would yield more information about temperatures and voltage levels and more insight into basic power qualities, which will be helpful as we integrate more renewables into our system.”

Another huge benefit is being better able to test new equipment, Cormier said. Just because a manufacturer’s equipment meets industry standards does not mean it will work well with other components. The Technology Innovation Lab gives SRP the ability to run “end-to-end tests” on new equipment in a more realistic and holistic way, he said.