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Utilities’ IQs Rising

U.S. utilities are getting smarter, and smart grids are making the difference. This theme permeated the recent Autovation 2011 conference in suburban Washington, D.C., which provided an overview of trends and recent developments.

How smart? No one from the utilities admitted to failing grades, of course, but various company representatives using smart technology report measurable progress:

– Pepco’s Bill Gausman, senior vice president of strategic initiatives, told the opening session that his utility’s smart grid outage-detection system came up big during Hurricane Irene. The system had 150,000 meters reporting in, and managers equipped with this data were able to eliminate 600 truck-rolls in Maryland alone (which, using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, works out to some $90,000 in savings).

– John Stafford, vice president of sales at Sensus, said he initially underestimated the benefits of smart grid technology for consumers. He told the audience his own projected bias was that only a “lunatic fringe” would be interested in modifying their usage once empowered with consumption data. However, consumers are interested in using Web-based reporting portals, he said; adoption is in the 20 percent range. He cautioned the audience to guard against personal bias, and allow the actual data to speak for itself.

– Portland General Electric’s project manager technology support, Eric Spack, said his utility’s installation of smart meters will bring an estimated return on investment (ROI) of $35 million (net present value) in operational cost savings.

Two other companies offered interesting updates on their efforts:

Craig Kuennen, business transformation and marketing administrator for Glendale (California) Water & Power, described how GWP has deployed smart meters across its system, and is in trials for the rollout of CEIVA photo frames early next year that will allow consumers to not only share pictures over a ZigBee-enabled home area network, but also engage them with a water and electric management dashboard. Pretty cool.

Echologics’ Marc Bracken, vice president and general manager, presented a fascinating case study of how his company’s non-invasive acoustics technology enabled the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO) to detect and conserve thousands of gallons of lost water per day. The technology can accurately pinpoint leaks without the use of digging, and in one instance uncovered a significant leak underneath a sidewalk that was costing SWBNO an estimated $200,000 per year.

One of the more lively sessions at Autovation took place during a panel discussion among meter vendors. Aclara’s Paul Lekan, vice president of marketing (and one of the most entertaining personalities in the utility business, I might add) made a strong point about how great the new meters are, but that “it’s all about the data” – and how utilities manage the information they collect and leverage analytics to their advantage. He cited one utility his company has worked with that saw a dramatic change in customer service calls: before the new technology was installed, 90 percent of calls were inbound, and now that has been reversed by utilizing data to proactively reach out to customers.

The takeaway from Autovation: Deployments of smart technology may be longer-term bets, but for utilities that have deployed them already some of the payoffs are evident now.

Article by Neil Strother, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.