CPS Energy pilot meter program part of larger effort to modernize aging electrical grid

No electrical grid would have been able to withstand the assault of Superstorm Sandy – extreme flooding, gale-force winds, downed trees and flying debris – without incurring major damage.

But for those utility companies that had already installed automated digital meters – the consumer piece of a modernized grid that will use Internet-like technology for increased reliability – restoring power to their customers went exponentially faster.

For example, Pepco, which provides power to almost 800,000 customers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., about half of which have automated meters installed, received what spokesman Marcus Beal called “last gasp” messages from those meters before they were knocked offline, allowing the utility to automatically add those sites to a repair list without a phone call from the customer or a visit from crews.

Automatic alerts from meters after power was restored allowed Pepco to close out tens of thousands of repair orders, Beal said, again without having to send out crews or make phone calls to verify the reconnection.

Within 30 hours of the storm passing, Pepco had restored power to “the vast majority” of customers; by the following day, all customers’ power had been restored.

In other places ravaged by Sandy, however, power restoration came much more slowly. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month called for a complete overhaul of his state’s energy regulations and power distribution.

“Let’s make the changes we need to make, and let’s do it while we are still in the moment,” he said.

CPS Energy has recently begun making those changes.

Last year, CPS Energy installed 40,000 automated digital meters in a handful of neighborhoods around the city as part of a pilot to make sure they work accurately and reliably before the utility installs the new meters system-wide by the end of 2016.

A CPS Energy employee relaces a customer's analog meter with a smart meter.
A CPS Energy employee installing new smart meters

CPS Energy’s pilot is part of a much larger effort, in Texas and nationwide.

That’s because Sandy is hardly the first reminder that the effects of our outdated grid have begun to catch up to us. How outdated? Consider: Thomas Edison, who created the first electrical grid in the country in 1882, would recognize its basic structure.

Take a moment to imagine if that were the case with phones or computers.

In the last 40 years, there have been five major blackouts in the U.S – three in the last decade. The Northeast blackout of 2003 caused an estimated $7 billion to $10 billion in losses in the region, according to a report by the Electric Power Research Institute.

In that case, according to a recent story in Inside Climate News, roughly 55 million people lost power in the Northeast and in Canada because overgrown trees brushed a high-voltage power line in Ohio, causing it to shut down.

“Because there was no ability for grid operators to see what was happening, that [outage] cascaded across the United States,” Miriam Horn, who directs the smart grid initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund told Inside Climate News. If a smart grid had been in place, “you keep hundreds of millions of people, literally, on the grid who got knocked off.”

Such failures have a national security component, too: they could bring communications, banking, traffic and security systems to a standstill.

While less disruptive, power quality problems are also increasing, according to EPRI, and now cost the U.S. between $119 billion and $188 billion every single year. The grid faces additional challenges as well: integrating larger amounts of renewable power and preparing for an increased demand from plug-in vehicles.

For all these reasons, grid modernization is underway. In 2007, the Bush Administration signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which codified federal support for an updated grid. States are enacting their own policies. Texas passed a law in 2007 urging that automated meters “be deployed as rapidly as possible” to allow customers to better manage energy use and control costs.

In 2008, the Obama Administration earmarked $4.5 billion in stimulus funds for grid and meter modernization projects. Since then, private investment has reached $4.4 billion, according to Dr. Massoud Amin, as technology, telecommunication, software and service companies work to create the modern grid.

The undertaking is massive, technologically and financially. As industry develops technology, regulators and policymakers at the state and federal level are working on rules to make sure systems work together – and that they ultimately benefit consumers.

While much of the grid modernization effort will take place “on the back end” of the system, the installation of automated digital meters is the biggest change that will affect consumers directly.

Already in Texas, more than 6 million such meters have been installed, giving consumers an unprecedented ability to see and control their energy use. Along with that, however, have come increased concerns about accuracy, privacy and health.

Questions about whether consumers are reaping the benefits they’ve been promised, as well as the technology’s high price tag for deployment, have increased calls from Texans who want to opt out, reported the Texas Tribune last month.

That’s a big reason CPS Energy has taken a cautious approach to installation, by piloting 40,000 meters before installing them system-wide.

Each meter measures energy in 15 minute intervals and relays data wirelessly to CPS Energy every 4 hours, eliminating the need to send an employee into customers’ backyards to manually read them every month. The meters also eliminate the need for CPS Energy to send crews out to provide services such as reconnections and move-in/move-out reads.

Now, with more than a year’s worth of data, one thing has become clear: the meters are increasing efficiency and saving money – more than $1 million in avoided costs to CPS Energy customers thus far.

“We have had a 99.95 percent success rate with data coming in,” said Anthony Hawkins, CPS Energy’s system measurement and technology director. “The industry standard is 99 percent.”

All the data transmitted from meters to CPS Energy is secure, and moves along the utility’s own fiber optic network, Hawkins said. The utility doesn’t release or sell customer data now, nor will it in the future. CPS will make this data available to the customer via a secure web portal, similar to online banking. Customers can use the information to manage their energy use – or choose not to.

The new meters have prompted few complaints thus far. Two customers have asked that their new meter be removed and replaced with the old analog model. CPS Energy will include an opt-out provision as it moves forward to install the new meters system-wide.

It’s important to note that these meters do not give CPS Energy the ability to remotely control a customer’s appliances or energy use, unlike the programmable thermostat program, which allows CPS Energy to cycle off air conditioning compressors for 10 minutes at a time during peak demand periods.

CPS Energy is in the final stages of selecting a vendor for the new meters. Once that process is complete, it will begin rolling them out to all customers. At the same time, CPS Energy will be developing new offerings that could, for example, give customers rebates in exchange for reducing energy consumption at peak times.

As that process moves forward, the CPS Energy blog will take up concerns about privacy, accuracy and health issues, as well as costs, customer benefits and any other issues our customers would like us to address. In the coming weeks, the CPS Energy blog will post stories that delve into each issue. We’ll talk to experts, advocates and detractors, and look at the latest science has to offer.

Questions, suggestions? Leave us a comment, below.

Tracy Idell Hamilton

Tracy Idell Hamilton was part of the Corporate Communications team at CPS Energy.

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