Utilities making smart investment in new meters

There aren’t many more mundane elements to an electrical system than the meter. It sits. It spins. It ticks off kilowatt hours. That’s about it. But that will soon change, industry forecasters say, as the microchip revolution makes its way to a new generation of “smart” electricity meters, which are destined to turn utility distribution systems into giant SCADA networks. Electric-utility contract electricians could see a lot of these meters in the next decade, but they may need some extra training to win this added business.

Large rollouts beginning

In November 2006, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) installed the first of more than 10 million smart meters it will place in customers’ homes throughout its service area. By this summer, the $1.7 billion program is planned to provide consumers with time-of-use rate information. This, along with a corresponding peak-pricing program, will bring demand-side-management (DSM) savings to residential consumers. By 2008, meter-based technology will allow the utility to continually monitor distribution circuit conditions to allow more accurate targeting of system problems.

Eventually, homeowners’ appliances could be connected to the meters via wireless devices, enabling direct utility control of thermostats, water heaters and other household electricity loads during critical peak periods.

And PG&E is not alone in pursuing this technology. Rosemead, Calif.-based Southern California Edison is planning a $1.2 billion smart-meter rollout, replacing 5 million existing meters, to begin in 2008. In January, Baltimore Gas & Electric began a $10 million pilot plan to install smart meters in about 5,000 homes, and Chicago has a 1,100-home pilot program already in operation. Many other utilities across the United States also are jumping on the smart-meter bandwagon.

“The pipeline for the next six quarters is between 30 million and 50 million [meters],” said Chris Hickman, executive vice president for regulatory affairs and business solutions for smart-meter manufacturer Cellnet, based in Alpharetta, Ga. “And that 30 million to 50 million will be 120 million in 10 years.”

In addition to providing residential customers access to the kinds of DSM savings large-scale industrial and commercial customers have had for years, the meters also may help capacity-starved utilities slow the need for new peak-shaving generating plants. Meeting this goal is dependent on the infrastructure that utilities are developing to network these meters to each other and the utility itself.

“If you want to truly manage the amount of energy that’s used, you’ve got to overlay a communications network on top,” said Clark Gellings, vice president of innovation for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the R&D arm of the electric-utility industry.

Communications breakdowns

Any electrician who has worked on building----system networks knows the challenge in tying devices together lies in ensuring those devices all speak the same language. As is often the case with new electronic technologies, several communications protocols—some based on power line communications and others using wireless radio frequencies—are fighting it out in the meter marketplace. Gellings said manufacturers will need to reach beyond proprietary protocols as the technology advances.

Wireless approaches seem to lead currently, especially a protocol established by a group called the ZigBee Alliance. Several thermostat manufacturers are alliance members, Hickman said, and the group now has an agreement in place with managers of the BACnet standard developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

“I think you’ll end up with one radio frequency standard and one power line-carrier standard,” said Hickman, whose company produces ZigBee-compliant meters. “But ZigBee is the only ratified standard for in-home networking.”

Smart meters, smarter technicians

Regardless of the technology, the new meters offer new opportunities to electricians willing to put in the time required to learn how to work with the new devices. Though the physical connection to a customer’s electrical system may not be notably different from that used with traditional meters, some programming skills may be required, Hickman said. And, Gellings said, opportunities for field-based maintenance also may arise.

“All of that will force us to have electricians who are more digitally conversant,” Gellings said. “I think there’s no question we’re going to raise the sophistication of the trades we have working on this.”

Electricians who depend on meter installation may need to learn new tricks to keep up with this changing industry. But with 30 million units now being bid—and up to 120 million devices planned over the next 10 years—the opportunities make this added effort seem more than worthwhile.   EC

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.