Measuring energy usage in real-time by remote metering is becoming increasingly viable, but in order to be economical, its cost must be offset with new power quality and energy management services. Enterprising electrical contractors might find a niche here with a profitable future, if they can partner with utilities and power quality service providers to get the job done. If you don’t have the time or money to learn how to become a power quality provider, looking at the market through eyes of a utility might be the first step. Contractors who learn to work with them might be the richer for such a partnership.

Utilities are forced to look for new ways to reduce costs, improve efficiencies and to protect themselves from wholesale power price swings. Every utility now can use new technology to decrease the cost of personnel, travel, etc., as well as have more reliable usage information to work more closely with merchant generators and customers to match energy supply precisely with demands in real-time. They can use the same technology to sell additional services and help consumers control their costs or assure power quality. Remote monitoring allows utilities to access meters more frequently and more accurately, a process that increases efficiencies and customer satisfaction. Some utilities have also realized economic gains by improving the management of the distribution network and the power quality within their premises.

“Utilities must think in terms of helping their customers out and building stronger relationships,” said Don Millstein, president of E-Mon Corp. (www.emon.com) in Langhorne, Pa. “It’s about more than delivering energy; it’s about offering long-term, real quality solutions.”

Emerging opportunities

“Utilities must embrace the challenges of today’s marketplace as a way to increase revenues,” said Adam Marsh, marketing director of Coactive Networks (www.coactive.com) in Sausalito, Calif. “Utilities now can put something new in everyone’s house and become more [valuable] than just an energy provider.” The technologies that are permitting utilities to read meters remotely are the same ones that can be used to offer additional services, such as power quality, home security and energy management. Thus, an investment in technology could pay off sooner if utilities find creative uses for them. The systems described below all must be installed and maintained by someone. Could that be your company?

The first step in the evolution toward “metering automation” is gathering the data from the meter before sending it to a centralized office where it can be assimilated and analyzed. The method by which the information is transferred is part of the dynamics driving automated data transfer. The transmission medium can be wireless, fiber optic or standard telephone lines. Some suppliers are installing transmission modules on meters and then using wireless radio signals to transmit the data. Others are placing a gateway in the home that can query the meter and then send the data out via the Internet. In some cases, power line communication technology is being tested and implemented as a way to send data over existing power lines.

The EPRI PEAC Monitoring Service (www.remotepq.com) provides continuous remote monitoring and analysis of a facility’s power quality and energy usage with Web-based reporting. It simplifies power management efforts with an online service that addresses opportunities and problems for utilities associated with the deregulation of the power industry.

EPRI PEAC is offering Web-based monitoring services for utilities, industrial and commercial customers with instruments including Electro Industries Reliable Power Meters, Dranetz-BMI Power Quality Meters and Square D Circuit Monitors. The online service is unique in that it offers continuous automated monitoring and analysis of power quality, energy and demand with an executive report of the analysis regularly updated on EPRI PEAC’s secure Web site. The basic service is connected to the customer’s main service entrance and provides a complete solution including the meter, installation, phone line and monthly report at a low cost. Also available is an alarm option that will page the client when a significant power quality event has been detected.

The latest remote monitoring system from Qualmag (www.qualmag.com) “will revolutionize the way a company manages its power quality issues,” according to a company statement. With an installed Ethernet network, Qualmag’s GRAM system can notify end users of developing power quality issues in real-time via e-mail and/or wireless paging. Web browser-enabling allows you to monitor the system status directly through the Internet in real-time. Key features include: remote power quality management, kW/hour usage, event counters, remote diagnostics, real-time monitoring and alarm processing.

GRAM generates power quality and consumption reports that support accurate revenue projections and track accumulated run times. Qualmag’s monitoring system also has the capability to be integrated into existing digital communications networks, interfacing with over 130 protocols. In the competitive power provider environment, immediate data for users is critical. Detailed load information and power quality are prerequisites for an effective energy management program. GRAM enables the user to make accurate power-related decisions quickly and effectively.

Companies like Coactive Networks, New Jersey-based Comverge Technologies and Lexington, Mass.-based muNet (www.munet.com) are marketing devices that go inside the home and are used to communicate with meters. Those so-called “gateways” are the size of thermostats and are mounted on the wall where they can then be coordinated with phone or cable lines, as well as any wireless technology consumers may be using. They enable consumers and utilities to access remotely such things as meters and security systems through the Internet. The residential gateway market is projected to increase from $125 million in 2001 to more than $5 billion in 2006, according to market researcher, In-Stat/MDR (www.instat.com).

DTE Energy Technology, an affiliate of Detroit Edison, is using a gateway from Coactive Networks that will launch other services. “Our commitment to using leading edge technologies to enhance the customer experience and to reduce operating costs led us to provide customers with energy usage information,” said Jim Gariepy, vice president of DTE information technologies. “But just as importantly, utilities that are considering this technology will want to focus on the end results, or the [power quality] solution offered, and not on the network that is used to acquire and transmit the data. Essentially, the product must be a vehicle to provide power monitoring and quality services.”

Gulf Power Co. is using such a gateway device to read meters. It’s defraying the costs with the expectation of turning the technology into a profit center by selling other energy management services. The Pensacola, Fla.-based utility is installing smart thermostats in homes that are able to adjust air temperatures and keep bills down. Consumers willing to pay a nominal monthly fee are guaranteed to recoup that cost through lower bills, it says, although they are foregoing their right to control their indoor climate during extreme weather patterns. Meanwhile, the utility is using the information to coordinate its supply and demand, a process that permits it to run the most cost-effective generation at the time of use, saving lots of money.

Cost justification

Despite the possibilities, the costs associated with automated metering have so far prevented it from becoming more widespread, according to Ken Silverstein, director of energy industry analysis at UtiliPoint International Inc. (http://www.utilipoint.com). “Automated meter reading takes capital and making the determination to invest can be difficult, given the evolutionary state of the energy industry. A smart meter, or the cost of a module to be affixed to an existing one, can run about $250. The net value of this service is about $1 per month to utilities, which comes from reducing personnel and cutting errors. The math makes for a long-term payback, too long for many financial decision makers.”

If advanced metering options are used that allow utilities to leverage the technology to sell additional services, such as power quality management, a meter could cost as much as $500—a sizeable investment for a utility with thousands of meters. But the net value is potentially several dollars a month. “Any utility that thinks it will remain competitive by just getting one meter read per month is kidding itself,” said Sean Doyle of muNet, the manufacturer of the WebGate meter interface system.

Commercial and industrial concerns are even more interested than residential users in automated meter reading. The process is giving them more insight into the amount and quality of energy that their facilities consume. By knowing usage patterns, they can run specific loads at times of the day that are more favorable to the utilities’ rate structure, or they can use the collective data as a way to bargain for better rates or head off problems before a crisis.

Meter automation is bringing some utilities early rewards. It will likely do the same for others down the road. Technology is advancing and competition among suppliers is emerging. As obstacles to implementation collapse and as more and more utilities offer power quality services, the market place will likely be better served if electrical contractors become involved.

Knowledge is power. With automated metering, utilities can coordinate supply and demand and reduce possible system outages. That newly realized efficiency can translate into lower prices for commercial, industrial and residential users. It would also make it easier for utilities to sell new power quality services. But the process of market development could be enhanced if electrical contractors see a potential opportunity here and begin now to get involved. It’s all about beating the competition. EC

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of C-E-C Group. He may be reached at 703.321.9268 or lewtag@aol.com.