Innovation is the beating heart of the energy industry: from Ben Franklin’s mythical kite flight to Thomas Edison’s light bulb to reliable and safe power distribution.
Through the years, technology has helped drive innovation in power distribution, operational efficiency and customer service. Today, aging power line carrier (PLC) systems have given way to data-rich Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and smart utility networks. These advanced systems offer opportunities for real-time connectivity and data analytics that improve operations such as billing and outage restoration while helping consumers become smarter energy users.
Utilities have an opportunity to use technological innovation to strike a balance between operational and customer service demands while laying the groundwork for growth. North Carolina-based electric cooperative EnergyUnited, for example, recently adopted a smart utility network —and a managed services approach to maintaining it—to build for the future.
North Carolina has a proud history of innovation and advancement dating back to the Wright brothers and their historic first flight near Kitty Hawk in 1903.
This culture of innovation also lives in the electric cooperatives that deliver power to North Carolina’s rural communities. Electric cooperative EnergyUnited, for example, continues to find new opportunities for innovation in its service to nearly 110,000 members in 19 counties across western and central North Carolina.
“We trace our roots back to the 1930s,” said EnergyUnited’s Vice President of Energy Delivery John McMurray. “We strive to stay on top of new technology in our never-ending quest to provide exceptional service.”
EnergyUnited had invested in a PLC to automate its electricity meter reading capabilities. The system delivered benefits for years but began experiencing issues as the technology aged. The co-op wanted to improve communication with meters in the field.
“PLC worked well for us for a long time, but with the technology advancements offered in RF Advanced Meters Systems, we fell behind. We knew it was time to upgrade to the latest, more advanced technology,” said former Chief Information Officer Kathleen Hart.
EnergyUnited knew exactly what it wanted—a communication network to deliver accurate and timely meter data, reliable hardware and software to keep member costs low and a partner they could trust to maximize their members’ experience.
“We investigated beyond the technology,” said McMurray. “We looked at who was providing that technology and how they could help deliver near real-time sensory information that would enable us to improve member services in the long term. We weren’t just looking for a smart meter solution but rather a smart grid solution.”
The co-op eventually went with a smart utility network from Sensus, a Xylem brand. EnergyUnited also chose the Software as a Service (SaaS) solution which gave them a private and secure cloud-based environment where software maintenance is managed by Sensus.
“Besides functionality, SaaS was one of the big reasons we chose Sensus,” Hart explained. “Having Sensus manage our software upgrades has drastically reduced the time we typically spend on them. It took us three months to deploy the last upgrade of our PLC system. Working with Sensus, our latest upgrade took less than a month.”
Improved communication speed
EnergyUnited has deployed more than 116,000 electricity meters to date. With the new meters in place and the ability to communicate via the two-way communication network, EnergyUnited now receives near real-time data and insights.
“Shortly after deploying, we received an alert from one of our new Stratus meters about a potential outage and we dispatched a crew within one minute,” said McMurray. “Seven minutes later, 911 emergency services called us about the problem but we were already addressing it.”
When the co-op had outages or equipment failures in the past, it had to wait for customers to call and report them. “Now it feels like we can see our grid with X-ray vision,” said McMurray.
The remote management capabilities not only save staff time but also lessen the utility’s carbon footprint with service calls.
“EnergyUnited recognizes the importance of sustainability measures and has eliminated about 450 truck rolls a month, which represents a 25% decrease over three months,” said Hart.
EnergyUnited continues to grow with its smart utility network. The remaining 14,000 meters will be deployed by the end of 2020. The modernization effort allows the co-op to provide the best member service possible.
“Our mission is to be the lowest-cost provider,” said McMurray. “Our new smart utility network makes us more efficient and empowers our members to have more information on their daily and hourly usage—ultimately giving them more choices to become smarter energy consumers.”
EnergyUnited recognized the opportunity for innovation to address immediate needs and help build for the future. Embracing a smart utility network means finding new ways to create operational efficiency while improving customer service. It also paves the way for new capabilities that generate meaningful customer connections. As the industry landscape continues to shift and utilities’ needs evolve, smart technology will ensure that innovation remains a hallmark in the power industry for years to come.
About the Author
Dan Bennett is the vice president of product management, energy solutions with Sensus, a Xylem brand. He has seven years of service with the smart technology company. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in both electrical engineering and computer engineering from North Carolina State University in Raleigh.