Moving Beyond the Smart Meter to the Smart Grid and a Smart Future

Due to a lack of consumer education and not having the right technologies in place, most utilities today are still struggling with handling the basics of the smart grid. Most utilities are still fixated on meters–not the infrastructure needed to have a truly smart grid. For many, the smart grid is still very much a dream for the future. But, for those who have moved beyond the smart meter into a truly smart electric grid, they are beginning to see the benefits of better customer satisfaction with lower complaint rates, alongside nearly flawless reader performance.

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By Steve Nguyen

Due to a lack of consumer education and not having the right technologies in place, most utilities today are still struggling with handling the basics of the smart grid. Most utilities are still fixated on meters–not the infrastructure needed to have a truly smart grid. For many, the smart grid is still very much a dream for the future. But, for those who have moved beyond the smart meter into a truly smart electric grid, they are beginning to see the benefits of better customer satisfaction with lower complaint rates, alongside nearly flawless reader performance. The technologies utilities are using to make the smart grid dream of the future a reality today are based on a control networking infrastructure that is made up of smart meters, data concentrators and system software all working together to meet the needs of the smart metering and advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) markets. These technologies allow utilities to treat automated meter reading (AMR) and AMI as core, meter-centric, applications for the grid and not as the smart grid itself. This means that utilities are able to think of the grid as a collection of intelligent distributed control applications and devices, riding on a single infrastructure that delivers maximum reliability, survivability and responsiveness.

Real Use Cases and Results

SEAS-NVE, Denmark's largest consumer-owned energy company and a leading distributor of electricity, is one example of a company that is using Echelon Corporation's Networked Energy Services (NES) System to better serve their customers' needs. Echelon's NES System is a control-networking infrastructure for the smart grid. SEAS-NVE chose the Echelon NES System for its ability to give them access to their customers' electricity on an hour-by-hour basis. This allows SEAS-NVE to help their customers reduce power consumption, of which they have already seen the benefits. Results to date for the 200,000 homes now connected show that hourly collection of extended load profile data–a customer's energy use over time–is consistently within a 99.7 percent to 100 percent performance range. SEAS-NVE has been able to save their customers 16 percent in energy use by using the NES System.

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"Nearly flawless performance coupled with happy consumers is a remarkable achievement," said Peter Holm Westergaard Iversen, SEAS-NVE's chief technology officer. "Engaging our customers, the consumer, in the process from its inception was key in rolling out a smart grid system that is welcomed into their homes and provides real, tangible savings every month."

SEAS-NVE targeted a low customer complaint rate of 5 percent for the project. To date, their complaint rate of 0.5 percent is 10 times better then target. This further proves the project's success and the NES System's ability to help utilities better serve their customers. In addition to benefiting the customers, the NES System also helps SEAS-NVE perform more efficiently as a company.

VattenFall Distribution Nordic is another company that is seeing the benefit of increased efficiency with the NES System. Vattenfall is Europe's fifth largest generator of electricity and the largest generator of heat. They currently have operations in Denmark, Finland, Germany, United Kingdom, Poland, Netherlands and Sweden.

At first, Vattenfall planned to use the NES System simply to automate its meter-reading process, but, once deployment was successfully underway, Vattenfall began to explore the other functions of the NES System. Vattenfall now uses the load-limiting function associated with the NES meter's integrated disconnect switch to better manage customers and their associated contract size restrictions. This function allows the utility to place new customers into its system much faster, reduces set-up time and ultimately saves money. It is also much easier to correct customer information in the system because they no longer need to send employees into the field. This project is a prime example of how smart metering can significantly improve a utility's operations and internal processes.

More About the NES System

Echelon's NES System is not a data network, it is an energy control network. It uses the power lines that run between the utility's low-voltage distribution transformer and the customers' meters to communicate and control. Unlike the old, early power line systems designed for rural AMR applications or the expensive broadband power line systems designed for data networking, the NES System is optimized for smart grid applications that include both AMR and AMI. The NES meters' and concentrators' power line network maps exactly to a utility's electricity supply connections to inform utilities with a 100 percent accurate, constantly updated topology of their low voltage grid. This is becoming critically important as more devices that either generate, store or consume huge amounts of electricity are added to households. The system creates a reliable, high-speed, neighborhood network among all the meters on a given low-voltage transformer to share a single Internet Protocol (IP) wide area network connection.

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The NES System is typically deployed by leveraging a community's existing IP network or using a cellular carrier to provide a backhaul for the data. This complementary architecture of neighborhood networks communicating over utility-owned electricity wires and a radio frequency-based backhaul allows the domain experts to manage their respective system elements; the utility manages its grid and the telecomm manages its wireless network. As a result, the entire system is less costly to deploy, operate and maintain, and utilities compete more effectively, reduce operating costs, provide expanded services and help energy users manage and reduce overall energy use.

Summary

Due to the additional insight into the grid and the increased efficiency in operations the NES system provides, utilities are seeing the benefits inside their own organizations and with their customer base. Utilities can build a trusted relationship with their customers by more quickly and accurately providing the services they are looking for–while at the same time reducing costs. When implemented correctly, the benefits of the smart grid seem endless. It is time for all utilities to stop thinking of the smart grid as a communicating meter and dream for the future–the future is here and now.


About the author: Steve Nguyen joined Echelon in 1992, where he has been a marketing director since 2001. While at Echelon, he has served in a number of marketing management positions including public relations and online services. In addition to his role in corporate marketing, Nguyen has been responsible for data systems and tools for marketing and sales including sales force automation, customer resource management and technical support. Nguyen currently serves on the board of directors for the Continental Automated Building Association (CABA) and LonMark Americas, and represents Echelon in the Business Council for Climate Change (BC3) and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Demand Response Task Group.

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