It is not enough to create smarter ways of using and delivering energy. Utilities also now have to educate consumers about the challenges of energy creation, use and growing demand; promote the benefits of greater grid energy intelligence; and engage consumer support in both cooperative dialog and interaction with the grid. As utilities across the United States grapple with an aging electrical infrastructure, evolving environmental regulations, increasing consumer demand and the high likelihood of customer cost increases that may come with system upgrades and replacements, it is important that customers understand their role in the future of energy.

To help convey this message, Duke Energy has created the Envision Center, a demonstration center that uses a community-like movie set to showcase the benefits of digital technologies, including home energy management, automated grid functionality and electric-vehicle charging. The center serves as a catalyst for stimulating this dialog with all parties about what the future of energy delivery and use can and will be as greater use of digital technologies and communications networks permeate throughout the grid.

The Energy Experience

The Envision Center, located in Erlanger, Kentucky, U.S., with a sister center located in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., gives customers the opportunity to experience Duke Energy's smart grid plans in a setting that is almost Disneyesque. There are no rides, but there are plenty of simulations, plus light, movie magic and sound effects.

The initial concept for the Envision Center was to provide a high-tech vision of how Duke Energy would leverage today's digital grid and communications technology to improve reliability, promote energy efficiency and improve the environment. The Envision Center opened its doors in late 2008.

The facility serves two purposes:

  • Engage customers in conversation about what energy can and will be with digital technology.
  • Demonstrate some of the benefits that are not possible with yesterday's analog equipment.

As technology adoption and advancements have revolutionized the experiences people have with their smart phones, computers, televisions and cars, the introduction of advanced technology solutions in the grid and home will do the same for many of their energy experiences.

The Engagement

More than ever, customers have an important role in the utility's energy future, and it is Duke Energy's responsibility to serve them well while providing clean, affordable and reliable energy. As 2011 progresses, Duke Energy will continue to engage customers and invite them to take a tour of the Envision Center to see what the grid will be like in 2015.

The Envision Center is just one of the tools Duke Energy is using to help promote greater understanding of digital technology in the energy industry. In addition to the Envision Center, the utility is bringing this experience to customers by engaging them through additional channels, such as online blogging and grassroots events. Duke Energy's ambition is to spark the conversation with customers to help them understand the benefits of understanding their energy usage.

Taking the Tour

The Envision Center includes four demonstration areas: a power distribution set that includes power lines, poles and equipment; a single family home with intelligent consumer devices and a smart garage; a multi-family/commercial set with digital meters; and a power-delivery work control center.

The power substation and service poles demonstration highlights the distribution automation technology Duke Energy is placing onto its power-delivery system. The design setup shows power being routed from a substation with a new digital breaker that is able to capture information about the energy moving through the lines and send it back to operators who use it to monitor the health of the system. Leading from the substation, red rope lights show how the power is transferred to various buildings within the city.

In this stage, Duke Energy explains to customers how devices on overhead and underground services will enable advanced services that can pinpoint problem areas, isolate them and reroute power so customer impact is kept to a minimum. Once customers gain an understanding of Duke Energy's power-delivery vision, they then transition into the home demonstration area.

In the home, various displays and devices show how consumers will communicate and interact with the grid. The set shows how technologies are used to gather energy-usage information and transmit it in two ways: to the utility and to the customers. This means the end user will be able to receive timely data that can help drive wise and practical energy-use decisions. By having usage information available more frequently and in a manner that is meaningful to them, customers will be able to make decisions about their energy consumption that helps them use energy more effectively and save money.

As visitors continue through the home, they come to the smart garage. This demonstration area explains electric-vehicle charging and the work Duke Energy is doing to better understand potential impacts electric vehicles may have on the grid.

Visitors next move to the multi-family/commercial building site where they can see a smart meter bank. In this demonstration area, customers learn the many ways in which digital smart meters will benefit them and the utility. For instance, instead of sending multiple meter readers to visit homes, customers learn how readings are performed remotely. And if they sign up for Duke Energy's Online Services program, they can view their last 24 hours of consumption in an easy-to-read, easy-to-use graph. The graphical view helps customers better understand how they are using energy so they may then determine ways to save.

Finally, visitors reach the portion of the tour that has movie magic in action. While customers gain insight into how digital technology will help them and the utility, rumblings of simulated thunder overhead begin to take place and a large video monitor breaks in with a server weather alert. Lightning begins to strike, and the weather report takes on more urgency. Suddenly, there is a pop and a flicker: Lightning has struck the substation, causing an outage.

Almost simultaneously, most of the section of the rope lighting that went dark relights. The self-healing team of intelligent switches has done its job in isolating the problem and rerouting power to most customers. In addition to minimizing customer disruptions, the intelligent switches also allow Duke Energy's technicians to pinpoint where the outage is and have a shorter area to scout for repairs, thus saving time as well as money. The storm passes, the repair is made and all is right in the energy world that is the Envision Center, as least until the next tour.

Beyond the Meter, Beyond the Tour

Duke Energy's Envision Center is a learning ground not only for consumers, but for the industry and suppliers, as well. Duke Energy, in collaboration with KEMA, an energy industry consulting, testing and certification firm, recently opened a smart grid interoperability testing and certification lab in the back of the center. The Smart Grid Interop Lab (SGIL) provides utilities and technology suppliers an opportunity to actually test how many of the products that are emerging in the marketplace today will integrate and perform with the existing grid system.

One of the key objectives of SGIL is to create a stable environment where various technology options can be effectively integrated and studied for their impact on the grid. For example, in this lab, Duke Energy will be testing test how large-scale vehicle-charging systems will affect the grid. The lab brings the Disneyesque features to life, with real working system elements, actual live circuits, and robust testing and evaluation tools that create a platform for optimization, regression and overall system performance measurement.

Yamur Hossain ( started his career with Duke Energy in 2003. He has held numerous positions from customer service to marketing. Hossain brings 10 years of utility experience to his current role as a communications specialist in corporate communications at the Envision Center in Erlanger, Kentucky. He helps consumers, businesses and other utilities understand Duke Energy's vision of digital technologies integrated into the electrical grid.

Companies mentioned:

Duke Energy