By Pat Corrigan
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of Public Power magazine.
For over 100 years, electricity, water and gas meters were built as single purpose devices for creating billing data. Because meters were viewed as the cash registers (and still are), the focus has long remained on increasing their accuracy and reliability.
In the 1990’s, with the availability of low cost/low power radios, some utilities chose to enable remote meter reading by installing radios inside the meters and using handheld devices and eventually mobile (van or airplane) devices. These initial meter reading systems were referred to as AMR (Automated Meter Reading). These AMR investments would typically provide a reasonable payback (about five years), but they were limited to one way kWh data collection. These AMR systems did not address commonly needed features, however, including demand reset and time-of-use metering. These shortcomings limited AMR to simple residential and small commercial metering. Despite the shortcomings, the process improvements were significant enough that many utilities deployed AMR and the focus of the 1990’s became centered on improving processes with the goal of lowering operating costs.
In 2003, Elster introduced a new approach to AMR and called it AMI (Automated Metering Infrastructure). While AMR was a single purpose system (kWh data collection), AMI was designed as a multi- purpose system. Where early metering was product focused and early meter reading was process focused, AMI was deemed to be people focused. The idea was that the investment should be positioned to serve people’s needs throughout the community – not just the needs of the utility meter reading department.
To help sustain this line of thinking, Elster developed a conceptual model called the 360 Degree View. This model can serve as a guide post for all utility technology investments. The centerpiece of the 360 Degree View concept is that a smart grid network should be designed and architected with everyone’s needs in mind. A graphical depiction of this concept is shown.
The central theme to the 360 Degree View is to formally recognize all stakeholders while solutions are being developed. For many technologists, this means getting out of their comfort zone (the yellow quadrant focused on utility engineers) and addressing the other quadrants (consumers, community leaders, and utility executives) as they design their solutions. Ultimately, the goal is to design and communicate a system for the benefit of the whole community. This approach can help address the different and changing needs of the stakeholders in the different quadrants of the 360 model. Some examples:
- Utility executives may not have the budget to deploy in a short time frame, so smart grid systems should be able to be deployed gradually over time as budgets allow. From the metering standpoint, this means providing a mobile reading/control approach that can be gracefully migrated to a full system.
- Utility engineers may want to have better data for system planning or they may want to embark on newer distribution system monitoring/control functions such as critical asset monitoring to increase preventative action rather than relying on corrective action. The smart metering network should allow easy incorporation of distribution system sensors and packaged or integrated applications.
- Community leaders may be seeking low-cost ways to advance a smaller utility footprint on the environment. The smart grid solution should support voltage conservation applications which enable direct energy savings with no inconvenience to the consumer.
- Consumers may be interested in how they can lower their cost for electricity or water. A smart grid vendor should be able to produce a business case using utility data to show cost savings. The message to the consumer is that the utility is making the necessary investment to lower operating costs, with specific examples. The trend today is to provide home energy portals for consumers to learn more about energy and water consumption to help them lower their costs. And the solution should make it easy for the utility to implement additional rate options so the consumer has more choices.
Among many technology vendors, public power utilities are viewed as being more risk averse, more cautious to adopt, and more burdened by budget pressures than cooperatives and investor-owned utilities. But an honest assessment of a reluctance to invest in new grid technologies must recognize that for too long, the decisions about technology investments have remained disconnected from public power consumers and their community leaders. Consumers want convenience and choice regarding rates, load control programs, and conservation efforts. Utilities must make clear how new investments in advanced metering, outage management, SCADA and other smart grid technologies will provide products and services consumers will value. The goal is to build and describe a value package that is so compelling that public power customers urge city officials to upgrade their electric systems and services.
Pat Corrigan is Vice President—Public Utilities for Elster Solutions. Elster is one of the world’s largest electricity, gas and water measurement and control providers. Elster offers products and services to public power utilities in affiliation with Hometown Connections.