Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor
Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is a smart grid lynchpin. As the grid becomes more intelligent, so must meters and their underlying communications framework. For a look at how metering is developing during the smart grid evolution, POWERGRID International spoke with Mark Munday, Elster Solutions CEO, about the company’s work inside and outside the U.S., as well as how he sees the marriage of smart grid, communications and smart meters.
PGI: Elster does a lot of international work, including the recent AMI project with Electrica de Guayaquil in Ecuador. How do you see international AMI evolving, and how does that evolution fit into a growing global smart grid movement?
Munday: Elster operates in 130 countries, has more than 80 installed smart grid deployments and over 200 million endpoints. So, we have a rather overarching view of AMI around the globe. People often see other countries as being dramatically different than their own, but that’s simply not true, especially with AMI and the smart grid. Other countries are moving forward on smart grid technology as quickly as the U.S. After all, energy demand is increasing all over the world, and all countries have to work ahead just to keep up. AMI can, of course, help with that demand, and smart metering is certainly required to bring the smart grid to fruition. This really is a world-wide phenomenon. It’s not just confined to the U.S.
PGI: What are your biggest projects in Europe at the moment? Any particular project we should keep an eye on?
Munday: Because of the 20/20/20 initiative, we really keep a close eye on all of them. (Editor’s note: The European Union has enacted an energy plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, increase renewable energy by 20 percent and improve energy efficiency by 20 percent by the year 2020. It’s been nicknamed the 20/20/20 plan.) In particular, the UK is doing quite a bit to move forward with the metering process.
PGI: How has Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) funding impacted your AMI business in the U.S.?
Munday: Initially, it injected a bit of uncertainty into the business in 2009 and early 2010 as utilities submitted their proposals and waited for the grants to be awarded. But, we see it smoothing out in 2011, and many of our customers are also SGIG grant winners.
PGI: Elster, Landis+Gyr and Secure are now working together to develop common approaches for smart communication standards in the UK market. How will that impact the metering market in England, and will that work have an impact beyond the UK?
Munday: With regards to our work in the UK, we have found it very beneficial to have collaborative efforts in the space. Together, we’re all trying to drive necessary interoperability. If we have that interoperability, we’ll be able to work toward a broader approach that incorporates gas and even water. The integration of smart grid to include gas and water metering will be required as part of a practical and holistic approach. Our work with Landis+Gyr and Secure is a good start down that road, as well as symbolic of that basic need for interoperability and multi-utility and multi-technology platforms.
PGI: Do you have a favorite U.S. project?
Munday: Our work with Salt River Project ranks at the top for me. This was a project that started without official incentives, without the government SGIG money. We just had a good business case for the project and Salt River had a desire for improved customer service. That’s it; a simple start. Today, along with getting that good customer service, they are seeing significant savings, and not just in the area of meter reading. Move-ins and move-outs are easier and more accommodating to the customers. They’re offering time-of-use rates. A number of cost benefits. And, with savings on one end, you also have ancillary benefits on the other with this project. They’re having fewer accidents and seeing fewer personal injuries. They’ve saved 135,000 gallons of fuel due to fewer truck rolls. JD Powers awarded them kudos in customer service for the 8th year in a row, and, unlike other utilities around the country, they’ve had no consumer grumbling about the project. Other utilities are talking about benefits their customers will receive in the future from AMI and smart grid programs, but Salt River Project is actually accomplishing those benefits today.
I also like Dominion. We’ve got approximately 100,000 units deployed with their project, and it’s a really interesting project. To them, voltage conservation was the key, and, what we found is that, indeed, voltage conservation could be a game-changer for all utilities. If operational efficiencies are realized, as with this case to improve voltage conservation, the consumer is not required to do a single thing to gain the benefits of energy savings. What was important, instead, was a transparency to the distribution system. Dominion saw a 6 percent savings without a single consumer making a single lifestyle change, all because of voltage conservation. Considering the fact that we’re likely to have some energy issues in the coming years, a smart grid project with voltage conservation considerations could help considerably, without requiring consumer participation. Instead, the smart grid will give a utility the eyes and ears it needs on the network.
PGI: How will smart metering change as the smart grid becomes more prevalent?
Munday: It’s difficult to separate the two even enough to discuss them as separate entities, bacause they work together so completely. Just looking at metering is too narrow a definition, really. It’s just not enough to think about revenue metering when looking at smart grid. You have to think about enabling infrastructure, and the communications network on all layers. Metering is about measurement and control, but the smart grid needs to be a flexible system that supports changes needed both today and in the future. I often tell people not to box Elster into the concept of simply a “mesh system” or smart meters. It’s really just about creating the right technologies to interact on the scale of larger system. As much as possible, utilities will need that intelligence down to the endpoints, it’s true. But, whatever we think the technology is today, it will be different tomorrow. We have to prepare for that.
PGI: How do we prepare for that?
Munday: First, interoperability, as discussed earlier, is key, especially with communications and IP. Second, we need to deal with legacy distribution which still talks DNP and other protocol languages. Rather than leaving those behind, we have to develop a smart grid that works with the legacy systems yet still has the ability to grow. Third, we need to realize that the smart grid exists in some form today. While some talk about the possibility of consumer benefits, if truth be told, these systems are already out there, and they are real. And, if we fold in the correct expenses, these systems can already be cost-effective today. We just need to design them so that they first pick the low-hanging fruit, then move on to tie-in existing systems and, finally, support a larger, growing architecture.
PGI: Any final thoughts on AMI and the smart grid?
Munday: Instead of thinking of the smart grid in terms like “AMI” or “smart meters” or “HAN” or any other acronym we’re so fond of in this industry, I think it’s important to think about the smart grid in terms of its benefits and how we will achieve it. To borrow a phrase that’s been used before, a lot of people think that smart grid is a destination. On the contrary, I think smart grid is a journey, and increased operational efficiency, consumer engagement and full interoperability are key areas of development that will determine the journey’s outcome. We need to figure out the most practical and informed way to achieve it. No vaporware, if you will.