BC Hydro power meters get smart

BC Hydro is winding down its pilot project of nearly 2,000 customers using smart meters with in-home displays and is preparing to select a vendor to deliver the technology for the rest of its’ 1.7 million users.

The two-year long pilot project ends in October, says Dag Sharman, senior media relations advisor with BC Hydro. After that, one of three short-listed companies will be chosen to provide the meters that help consumers keep track of how much power they’re using, and how much money they’re spending.

The companies proposing plans are Plano, Texas-based EDS Corp. (recently acquired by HP), Toronto-based Capgemini Canada Inc. and New York-based Accenture Inc.

BC Hydro hopes the plan, costing between $730-$930 million, will cut back on the amount of power its customers consume.

“We’re big on conservation,” Sharman says. “What a smart meter does is help customers make more informed decisions about electricity.”

Officially dubbed the “Smart Metering Infrastructure Project” it is part of BC Hydro’s plan to meet environmental goals set by the provincial government. Half of the utility’s incremental resource needs must be met through conservation methods by 2020. The province wants to be self-sufficient for power by 2016.

All B.C. utilities should be looking to discourage consumption with new pricing structures that will shift demand to off-peak periods, according to the province’s energy plan. To help customers make that shift, smart meters will be put in place.

“Just like when you fill up your vehicle with gasoline and you see the cha-ching of the money spinning by,” Sharman says. “It’s about awareness. None of us wants to spend money we don’t need to spend.”

Pushing smart technology to the end user of a service that has millions of users signals a change in the energy industry. EDS is no stranger to the concept. In fact, the company has helped deploy and integrate similar devices around the world.

“We’ve done some of the largest deployments, from California to Italy,” says Frank hart, chairman of EDS Canada. That includes projects that dwarf BC Hydro’s requirements – such as a 30 million meter project for Italy-based Enel.

EDS has also been working with California’s Pacific Gas & Electric utility for the past two and a half years to deploy 5.5 million meters. One of the first utilities in North America to deploy smart meters, and the benefits of the project are now becoming clear.

“The idea of the smart meter is to be able to provide a very fine granularity of data for consumption,” says Roy Pratt, the global lead in energy for EDS. Since utilities can’t manage how their power is consumed, they must rely on customers to manage themselves.

BC Hydro’s pilot project has shown this can be done. Almost two-thirds of the customers in the trial reduced their energy usage. Peak period energy use was reduced by over 15 percent, with customers planning their high-energy use for off-peak times.

Trial participant Bill Swanson offers one example of a way consumer cut back on their power usage.  

“We bake all our own bread, so we switched baking to the weekends,” Swanson says, quoted on BC Hydro’s Web site. “We make enough bread to last all week so we are not using the oven much during peak times.”

Bill Swanson modified his bread making schedule to save power. Photo from BC Hydro.

But the meters can do more than help bread-baking users conserve power. Smart meters return a wealth of data to the utility that gives a fuller representation of overall usage. That could help conserve power before it even gets to the end point.

“When you’re dealing with a large volume of very granular data that represents the consumers’ consumption, the utility can look at that data and analyze it,” Pratt says. “They can better match what the customer is using with what they’re producing, because electricity is a just-in-time product, it has to be produced at the instant it is used.”

BC Hydro will be able to lump data on the power usage of many of their customers together and make decisions that will conserve power, says Peter Kobzar, senior management of distribution operations with BC Hydro. Certain devices can be switched on or off to optimize electricity flow.

“This will provide the next level of granularity,” he adds. “It will help us make decisions to stretch existing assets even further.”

Aside from power conservation, utilities often enjoy some fringe benefits from installing smart meters, says Hart. For example, employees tasked with travelling from meter to meter to record power usage can be re-trained for other tasks.

“The more you automate functions, the less people you need doing this stuff manually,” he says. “That means you can take those employees and put them on higher value activities in the organization.”

Pacific Gas & Electric moved their meter readers on to tasks like theft prevention, Hart adds. Smart meters can also proactively detect theft – if the output is higher than the consumption at the other end, you know there’s a problem.

As BC Hydro gets ready to select the vendor for its smart meter deployment later this Fall, the utility will be looking for the best ideas borne out of other projects, Sharman says. The utility will be joining the ranks of Pennsylvania Power & Light, Philadelphia Electric Company, and South Cal Edison.

“Our program will be considered leading edge,” he says. “Our technicians have been studying the way everyone else has been doing it and applying the best of the best.”

The project will begin deploying smart meters in 2009, and the deadline for all 1.7 million installations is the end of 2012.

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