By Anthony Hawkins
With energy bills taking an increasingly large bite out of their budgets, companies large and small are scrutinizing operations and looking for ways to control energy costs. That puts pressure on utilities, especially those in deregulated markets, to provide customers with value-added services that enable them to run their operations more efficiently. It’s either that, or risk watching them walk away, taking significant revenues with them.
Through the C&I Network, Austin Energy is able to connect its Itron MV-90 host processor directly to the registers of solid-state electric meters.
When confronted with this very situation, Austin Energy took a step toward the future, turning to advanced metering technology and Web-enabled software to deliver the knowledge our large customers require to manage energy consumption and costs. The results are exciting, with the best hopefully yet to come.
The utility landscape in Texas recently underwent a profound change. Starting Jan. 1, 2002, residential and commercial and industrial (C&I) customers in retail deregulated areas, which cover most of the state, are now able to choose their electricity supplier. This new market is bringing competitive pressures to bear on city-owned utilities like Austin Energy. Though such utilities can elect not to participate in the deregulated market, our C&I customers are able to search for, evaluate and purchase value-added services from other energy providers. The message is clear: Utilities must provide the highest level of service and value possible, especially to large customers, who account for the largest percentage of revenues.
Austin Energy chose the Itron C&I Network to meet the needs of the new competitive market. The C&I Network is an RF “communications pipe” that connects our Itron MV-90 host processor directly to the registers of solid-state electric meters. No data storage, manipulation or processing takes place anywhere in the network.
The first step toward putting the system to use was a partnership with one of our largest customers, a successful Fortune 100 technology company situated on two sprawling campuses. The company, tasked with controlling energy consumption and costs within its many large buildings and high-tech manufacturing facilities, was the perfect candidate to test the capabilities of the C&I Network.
The system utilizes wireless radio communications and a single dedicated public telephone line to enable MV-90, installed at Austin Energy, to interrogate 24 solid-state electric meters on the company’s campuses and collect interval energy consumption data from them. The collected data is then transferred to an Itron Web server in Raleigh, N.C., making it possible for both the company and Austin Energy to view consumption information and load profiles, collected daily, via the Internet. This enables us to identify excess energy usage and work together with the customer to curtail it. Our customer is also able to target opportunities for greater efficiency and cost savings.
Austin Energy is also experiencing savings, simply by virtue of the network’s architecture. We now have the ability to collect advanced meter data from a number of meters in different locations using a single dedicated phone line, all but eliminating the ongoing, monthly costs associated with a dedicated phone line or cellular unit for each metering point. The application is ideal for gathering interval data from multiple metering points within a geographical area and getting the data to the people who need it.
With a successful test of the system under our belts, plans are well under way for a vast expansion of the project. Downtown Austin, for a number of reasons, is the logical location.
Downtown Austin is a nightmare for Austin Energy’s meter electricians. Traffic is getting worse all the time, making it nearly as likely that our workers will be stuck in a sea of cars as actually collecting interval meter data. Once they arrive at their intended location, the job becomes no easier. Most downtown meters are located in underground vaults, which our meter electricians must venture into to obtain data. It’s a dangerous and time-consuming process. The opportunity to take meter electricians and their costly vehicles out of the energy measurement equation is enticing for reasons of both safety and savings.
Of course, the cause of the downtown area’s crowded state is that it is, for many, Austin’s destination of choice. Many of our largest businesses, and, by extension, key customers, are located there. But that’s not all. The state capitol, and all of the large buildings that go along with it, are downtown. So is the campus of the University of Texas. Put it all together, and this is an area in dire need of advanced metering technology.
Plans are for a C&I Network to be installed in a 26-block range downtown by August 2002. Our largest office buildings will be part of the network, as well as the capitol and university buildings.
With the network in place, meter electricians will no longer have to trudge through downtown and take risky excursions into underground vaults. Beyond that immediate improvement, we envision being better able to respond to customer needs, thereby improving our competitive positioning in this changing market. Value-added services will now be possible, such as customized rates and profiling over a Web interface, just as we continue to do in our test project. Additionally, power quality is of great concern to some of our customers, especially the ones with large manufacturing operations. Data can be gathered via the network on as many data recording channels as necessary to get a good look at factors like per-phase current and voltage.
The test implementation illuminated another plus associated with the technology. By purchasing the network, Austin Energy has complete control over the data gathering. If a customer desires a more frequent read schedule to better ascertain how much energy is being used and when, we can fulfill the request immediately. The power to respond to our customers, and, in the process, help ensure their continued loyalty, is at our fingertips. Flexibility is a crucial part of the project for everyone involved.
John Hengesh, vice president and general manager of Itron’s Water and Public Power Business Unit, believes technologies such as the C&I Network, along with Web-enabling software, will become increasingly valuable tools for utilities such as Austin Energy for helping customers meet their operational and strategic objectives.
“Competition for large customers will only intensify in the future, not only in Texas but in many parts of the country where deregulation is taking effect,” Hengesh said. “Austin Energy is making a commitment to turning a challenging set of circumstances into an opportunity for even greater success, by helping their large customers run their operations better and more efficiently.”
Things are changing in Texas. With the right mix of advanced technology and advanced thinking, Austin Energy hopes to make the most of those changes.
Anthony Hawkins is manager of advanced metering operations for Austin Energy. He can be reached at email@example.com.