Conquering the Final Frontier: Using Satelite to Collect C&I Meter Data

By Frank Russell, Hunt Power/MeterSmart

Reliable access to large customer meter data is a core necessity for running a profitable and stable utility company. In this time of tight margins and energy shortages, reliable meter data is critical for forecasting demand and consumption. Utility executives and managers lead this charge because they require an accurate daily picture of their business to forecast tomorrow’s needs and to accrue today’s revenue.

While the days of reading meters in-person are not gone for good, they have certainly lost their luster. As a result, utilities have turned to technology. Based on diligent engineering and the declining cost of technology, there are several options when it comes to communicating with commercial and industrial (C&I) meters. These include landline communications, industrial cellular phones, the manual meter read and the newest entry to the race-satellite communications.

Traditional Options

Dedicated telephone lines are a reliable option for communicating C&I meter data, but they can be costly to install and maintain on a monthly basis. The monthly service cost is up to approximately $50, and the installation cost ranges from $100 to $500 or even more if conduit or trenching is required. This cost can be higher for Ethernet because it is still considered a newer, more advanced option.

Another factor to consider is that the traditional telephone or Ethernet connection may not be practical due to location. This is oftentimes the case in rural or mountainous areas. As a result, utilities with rural needs have had to consider other communications options.

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Because of their location flexibility, cellular phones have become another alternative for communicating meter data. But business users, like consumers, face the same intermittent issues with dependability. Digital service may not be available in rural areas, so the utility is forced to use analog cellular networks, which are now being phased out. Equipment decisions (capital investment) raise another fundamental problem. Most utilities require their meters and associated equipment to last 10 to 15 years, but cellular systems are typically upgraded every few years, which tends to make the remote equipment obsolete at a rapid pace.

Performance-wise, cellular phone service is designed with mobility in mind. To find the best possible signal, the user often must move a few feet. Meters don’t move, meaning that not every meter location will be able to receive a strong cellular signal, which can also change from day to day.

These days, the last-ditch meter communications option is the manual in-person reading, which is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “sneaker read.” This option is among the least desirable based on the cost of sending an employee to the meter’s location, and usually limits the reads to once a month.

The newest addition to the meter communications family is satellite, which offers location flexibility, low cost and dependability.

Satellite Technology Overview

The satellite communications technology in use today for utility meters and advanced load profiling meters was originally developed for two-way messaging. The technology has evolved over time and is used in a number of business applications all over the world, from two-way messaging to supply chain management and logistics to utility meter data collection. While satellite has been a trusted technology for years, the price of entry and monthly service prohibited its use. Now, the cost has finally fluttered down to earth.

On the ground, the components are not too different from a more traditional remote meter reading setup. The meter is attached to a modem, which interfaces with the meter and transmits the data to the satellite using an external antenna. The meter and communications equipment are small enough to be mounted next to the meter at the substation or customer site as necessary. The technology is compatible with utility grade socket meters for billing, as well as utility grade non-socket meters used for load research and demand response programs.

In the air, the setup is non-traditional. A constellation of low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites move constantly around the earth to provide global coverage. A satellite is typically “visible” to any given satellite-enabled meter in less than six minutes, assuming a clear view of the sky.

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From the LEO satellite, data is transmitted to one of a dozen ground stations strategically placed around the world. The ground station then transmits the meter data back to the network head end. From there, a third party decompresses and transfers the information to the utility for analysis, billing, demand forecasting and any other application that makes financial sense for the utility’s business and the customer. Cost for the service is typically similar to a dedicated phone line, or about $1 per day per meter.

Reliable Demand Forecasting

Utilities meter and monitor substations, gather data, and gauge electricity supply and demand for an array of core business applications. The data is used to predict demand on both a short- and long-term basis, provide data for settling power purchases and sales, and for preserving valuable transmission and distribution equipment. In many cases, substations are in remote locations that make accessing meter data on a daily basis difficult or impossible.

This was the case at one Northwestern multi-state utility, where operations managers determined they needed to access more substation meters on a daily basis to better predict power demand. For some of the utility’s more remote substations, plant operations relied on manual weekly or monthly meter readings that required an employee to drive to the meter site.

Ideally, operations managers would like to rely on substation data to buy, sell or generate power on an as-needed basis each day. If a utility buys too much power, it’s difficult to recoup the cost. If a utility buys too little power, it must rely on costly peaking generators to make up the difference. With weekly or monthly meter reads, most of the substation data was too outdated to provide value for this purpose.

The key obstacle to accessing the data remotely was location. Many substations were situated off the beaten path where landlines-both telephone and Ethernet-would be too costly to extend. In some cases, cellular towers were too far or obstructed, making meter communications spotty at best. Installing and utilizing a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) network was another option, but the cost was prohibitive in this instance.

After exploring the various communications options, operations managers decided to install satellite communicators with meters programmed to relay data on a daily basis.

When the upgrade to satellite is complete, the utility will have a networked substation system that provides daily insight into the company’s T&D operations. With this information, operations managers should also be able to prevent or delay costly T&D equipment failures, identify opportunities for increasing system efficiency and gain additional insight into the utility’s business as a whole.

Large Loads in Remote Areas

Often, a utility’s largest customers may be located in the farthest reaches of its service territory. Large manufacturers, chemical and oil producers and mine operators are a few examples in the industrial category that draw large electrical loads to the outskirts of civilization.

This was exactly the case for one such quarry operation. In this example, utility employees and the mining company’s management elected to implement remote metering. They realized it was the key to providing valuable information about several heavy electrical loads on the mining site.

The goals for metering were to understand the load and provide timely and accurate billing data. Daily access to energy usage data provided the quarry mine with the opportunity to participate in special demand reduction programs that could help save energy and money over the long term.

The key challenge was accessing data from the utility’s meters. Landlines were not a practical or cost-effective option. And there was no cellular signal in the quarry.

Project managers turned to satellite as the solution. As long as the satellite communicators can “see” the sky for a brief period during the day, the orbiting satellites can access the meter data.

As a result, the mining operation has actionable information about its energy consumption, allowing it to more accurately manage its most valuable equipment. The company has the ability to participate in demand reduction programs, and the utility has daily access to accurate meter data for one of its largest customers.

Satellite a Viable Solution

Utilities will continue to see the benefits of reliable meter data to run their business and as a value-add for their customers. Where remote facility locations were short on reasonable remedies in the past due to high cost, they now have a viable solution to manage their operations and energy usage more effectively through the availability of the satellite communication option.

The top three concerns in collecting meter data are cost, security and reliability. Utility managers evaluating the satellite communication option should keep several things in mind. First, they need to have a good certified MDMA (meter data management agent) partner that has a strong understanding of interval data. Second, they need a solid process for translating the satellite data. Finally, they must have reliable field hardware and software interfaces, and know that other services may be required. ௣à¯£

Frank Russell is western regional utility sales manager for Hunt Power/MeterSmart. Russell has more than 25 years of experience in technology development and deployment in the utility, aerospace and electronics industries. He has held positions in engineering, project management, operations, sales and marketing.

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