Combining Utility Efforts for a Single Smart Grid Platform

Combining Utility Efforts for a Single Smart Grid Platform


As the smart grid continues to develop, what practical benefits can be gained by the integration of multiple utilities in a single shared architecture?

The city of Tallahassee in northwestern Florida combined its electric, water and gas metering into a single technological platform as part of its smart metering project. The intended benefits include improved access to real-time usage information, real-time communication to customers, an effective platform for its demand response program and the ability to offer variable rate strategies to customers. The system has provided unprecedented access to account information through a Web portal, which allows customers to make informed efficiency decisions concerning their energy use and determine what aspects are delivering as expected or what further development is needed.

Tallahassee has a population of 182,000. Its municipal utility services 87,000 residential customers and 14,000 commercial customers with electric service. The city also serves 26,800 gas customers and 75,600 water customers with some overlap among the three utilities. This includes the city of Tallahassee and a portion of Leon, Wakulla and Gadsden counties, which provide a mix of rural and urban areas. Reading utility meters is a major undertaking and has been a manual process in which meter readers have had to visit each residence and business monthly.

The city is completing its smart metering project to roll out a single smart grid platform for its electric, water and gas utilities to create real-time communications that can enable a number of programs that encourage conservation and off-peak usage of resources. The program enables the utility to more effectively roll out creative pricing programs. For instance, the city has a large university population and structured a pricing plan specifically for students. It supports night and weekend rate plans. The program also enables the utility to more easily accommodate solar power generation by residences and businesses. The new infrastructure makes it easier for customers to sell excess solar power they generate back to the grid. Having all three utilities owned by the municipality simplifies creating the single infrastructure that makes creative programs such as this possible and lowers the costs of doing so.


The city’s program has three primary objectives:

1. Provide the utility access to real-time usage information and communication to its customers.
2. Provide the utility an effective platform for its demand response program and the ability to offer variable rate strategies to its customers.
3. Provide utility customers with improved access to account information, such as real-time energy usage, a review of their historical usage and the ability to see how much energy they have used during the current billing cycle, allowing customers to make informed efficiency decisions concerning their energy use.

To empower customers to make smart decisions that minimize energy and water use and save money, the utility must give customers improved control over information about their usage as quickly as possible-not just when the monthly bill arrives. Because the municipal utility provides three services, it has an opportunity to provide that information to customers-and back to the utility itself-considerably more efficiently than had it provided only one service.


The project involved developing and installing utility metering infrastructure and computer systems to automate the metering function of all three of the city’s utilities.

The project was budgeted for some $40 million and initially launched in 2007. Much of the cost was for the metering system’s infrastructure, but the overall project included selecting the smart metering system, training city employees, installing the system infrastructure and installing software, including in-home messaging for customers.

There are two main parts of the system: advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and the meter data management system (MDMS).

AMI. The AMI includes utility meters provided by Elster Electricity, a backhaul network to transmit the meter data and a central head-end system that collects the data.

The program involves installing some 213,000 new Elster meters. Each home or business has separate water, gas and electric meters. The gas and water meters communicate wirelessly to the electric meters. Each water and gas meter is identified with a unique serial number that prevents customers from being accidentally charged for a neighbor’s usage.

The electric meters track electric usage and act as repeaters that accept the data from the water and gas meters and transmit all the data through the network to the head end.

They can transmit data on a regular schedule or on demand. Some enable the city to connect or disconnect service remotely.

The meters also can link to central thermostats or other home automation systems and provide digital information displays that customers can read.

There is also a significant direct cost savings that comes with replacing independent repeaters with the electric smart meters. Each independent repeater costs $1,100 and another $3,500 for installation.

One added challenge is that the city of Tallahassee’s utility footprint does not neatly align with the city itself, and it varies depending on the utilities provided.

In each case, that footprint extends beyond the city limits into neighboring counties and, in some cases, this includes other utility service territories. In some of these regions, the city provides gas and water service while another utility, such as Progress Energy, provides the electrical service.

Under the new system, the electric meters transmit the data, so in those homes and businesses, the municipality needed a different source of electricity.

In some cases, it chose independent repeaters powered by solar panels installed on a pole some 10 feet in the air.

The city reduced the size of the panels used from 3.5 feet by 4 feet to 18 inches by 2 feet to make them less obtrusive. Before the project, these repeaters didn’t exist. The city and Honeywell designed an initial basic solution and Elster Electricity refined the design with a model one-third the original size.

Solar power worked only for some locations, however, because northern Florida is heavily wooded, especially in rural areas.

To complement the solar approach, the city signed an agreement with cable provider Comcast Corp. that enabled the city to install a cable modem and data collection device in cable system power supplies.

This solution was used in nearly half the nonelectric service territory. The city also had to install 315 backhaul gatekeepers. The gatekeepers were integrated with cable fiber (270), city fiber (13) and wireless (32) backhaul systems. The three backhaul systems are integrated with the AMI head-end system. Network creation remains ongoing.

The city is using city government facilities that have local-area network (LAN) capability in the first line of backhauling data, which provides about 5 percent of network coverage for power of devices and backhaul of data.

In addition, the city has established an agreement with Comcast to use cable modems installed in the power supplies throughout the service territory to provide some 90 percent of network coverage for power of devices and backhaul of data.

The utility also uses cellular modems in partnership with Verizon Communications Inc. to provide the remaining network coverage for backhauling data.

Power to the devices is supplied either from city power at the utility poles or through solar power.

MDMS and portal. The MDMS is a separate computer system responsible for maintaining the metering data, analyzing it and reporting on the data.

It integrates with other computer systems and a centralized billing system from PeopleSoft called a customer information system (CIS).

This system previously existed and was the only aspect of the municipality’s utility infrastructure that already integrated electric, gas and water.

The MDMS system had to be developed largely from the ground up in conjunction with Aclara. This is a critical system for tying everything together, including the smart grid platform and existing utility systems. It is the key point for connection to the Web portal. It also will include advanced meter theft analytics. MDMS work was completed by internal information technology staff and third-party integrators.

The Web portal is called e+ Online, which is where customers can view their current and historical bills and usage for all three utility services plus sewer, solid waste, fire and storm water services. From this portal, customers also can pay their bills, use a rate comparison tool to choose the best rate for their lifestyles and look at weather data and consumption. Meter data is available in 30-minute increments. Gas and water data are available in hourly increments.

Change Management

Beyond system implementation, the training reflected that a significant implementation challenge was process change management, including redesigning existing processes and developing new ones.

Previously, the municipality had three parallel processes for water, electrical and gas for most aspects of the business. Each utility was its own kingdom. The exception was that billing was centralized across all three utilities with the PeopleSoft system. As a result, beyond simply installing new meters, the organization was forced to consider common processes to achieve the efficiencies it was seeking. This was a collaborative process with its technology partner, Honeywell.

For example, customer service support was significantly affected by the new metering system. Call center staff needed to be trained on what new information customers had access to to be effective in energy efficiency advocacy and sales. Customer calls shifted from primarily billing disputes to questions concerning energy usage. This requires more robust communications, situation handling and data interpretation skills. Call centers can initiate connects and disconnects rather than scheduling a service order or truck roll.

There also were impacts to distribution field operations personnel, as well, if somewhat less significant than those facing the call center.

Most significant was volume, as automation significantly decreased the size of the team. Personnel shifted from connect and disconnect or meter reading to more complex tasks, such as grid infrastructure device installation and maintenance, as well as preventive maintenance. The full impact of these changes is still being understood.

Communications to customers was another part of the program. Information was created to help customers understand why the utility was replacing dumb meters with smart ones, highlighting benefits to customers and not just the utility.

Overcoming Challenges

Working with internal utility departments and the technology provider produced a system that works well, and the city already is beginning to reap benefits.

The city has reduced overall costs by requiring a smaller fleet and personnel pool for reading meters, with meter reading essentially automated. The field services department reduced its staff by half, and a team remains for troubleshooting and handling connects and disconnects.

In some cases, a lack of available power presented challenges. Some areas in the service territory have neither solar nor city power available, including heavily wooded locations outside the city’s electrical coverage area.

The utility is working with the technology provider on strategies to achieve full network coverage for these instances.

One approach might be drive-by automated meter reading (AMR) rather than a true smart meter network.

In this case, a truck can drive down the street to pick up readings. This approach loses the real-time benefits, but this situation applies to less than 5 percent of the service territory.

Learnings, Recommendations

Technology can create many issues that are not or could not be anticipated.

As noted, the MDMS system had to be developed largely from scratch. The utility originally assumed it could rely on an off-the-shelf system.

A related learning is allowing adequate time and resources for software revisions. Bugs and other issues arose and resulted in a new revision, installation and round of testing.

None were too challenging to overcome but delays accumulated.

Having strong partnerships internally and externally is paramount to working through the issues and finding solutions. Significant new technologies create nontechnology people-centered problems.

In particular, implementing a merged smart grid system will disrupt existing business processes.

That was true for the city of Tallahassee. Identifying and modifying business processes will require significant interdepartmental cooperation. Having a strong partnership with a technology provider with related experience can improve opportunities to identify and assist with the needed changes.

It is important to provide the education needed to create internal understanding of the business process changes and how they will benefit other departments.

This leads to buy in from employees who will be affected most by the system implementation. Related, these changes can drive unmanageable wish lists as employees imagine exciting new possibilities enabled by these new technologies.

Understand what the utility needs and separate the needs from wants. This can prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Customers also are affected by the new smart metering system. Having an excellent customer communication plan is essential to maximizing customer satisfaction by providing them with adequate educational information about the system and its benefits.

Although the city of Tallahassee enjoys ownership of all three utilities, it can envision scenarios in which this is not the case, and yet a single smart grid system still could be employed through a partnership model with other utilities.

All the utilities would benefit by increasing efficiency around meter reading, improving meter-reading reliability, enhancing customer service, reducing fleet costs and lowering labor costs.

Brian Halcomb is a program manager with Honeywell Smart Grid Solutions and manages the West Florida Branch suite of programs for the city of Tallahassee and Gulf Power (Pensacola, Fla.). His operations and project management experience spans 20 years.

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