By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer
Utilities have been increasingly vocal with the cry for advanced metering standards over the last couple of years. Such demands take on a more convincing clout when a giant like Hydro One picks AMI technology based on its open protocols.
This Canadian powerhouse is now deploying a standards-compliant communications infrastructure from Trilliant Networks. By the end of 2010, the system will serve 1.3 million customers in the province of Ontario. On Oct. 1, the Hydro One project earned a nod of approval from utility peers. It won the "Best AMR Initiative in North America" award conferred by the Utility Planning Network, a networking and educational consortium.
According to project director Rick Stevens, Hydro One architected its AMI solution around "the requirement that the end-to-end product be based on open standards." That's what the utility will have with the mesh network it is using to get meter data to collection sites, which may then rely on WiMAX, a standards-based technology aimed at providing last-mile broadband capabilities wirelessly.
WiMAX "has propagation characteristics that work well for an Ontario utility with a fairly rural service territory," Stevens explains. When testing the technology's capabilities, he's seen successful transmissions that span more than 20 kilometers -- nearly 12.5 miles -- in line-of-sight, point-to-point trials while hitting speeds of 20 megabytes per second.
For now, Hydro One engineers have two options for backhauling data from the collectors: Ethernet is one. The other is a modem that taps CDMA wireless technology.
According to Stevens, utility managers opted for the high-bandwidth alternatives to open up the metering communication network to additional uses. "We looked at things like distribution system SCADA, real-time outage management, and demand-management technology," as well as the ability to communicate with field crews, he says.
Leveraging the network
Myles D'Arcey, Hydro One's senior vice president of customer operations, cites mobile workforce management as one of the most compelling applications his utility might add onto its AMI network.
"We have a geographically dispersed workforce that covers more than 550,000 square miles," he explains. In fact, Hydro One owns and operates 97 percent of Ontario's transmission and the largest distribution system in the area. It covers some 75 percent of the entire province.
Not surprisingly, D'Arcey says mobile crews often are far from their offices and Internet communication. And, with around 4,500 collectors in the field for the AMI system, his team naturally started looking at ways to harness that network to help workers on the road. He recalls managers asking, "Can we use this to dispatch work orders and get field updates? Can we give field crews up-to-date mapping information versus the hard-copy maps we have today? Can we track individual workers more closely to ensure their safety?"
He adds: "When you start looking at the ancillary opportunities, there's a huge advantage to having a more robust communication system. WiMAX provides the communications backbone for uses such as these to happen."
Along with mobile-workforce management, D'Arcey maintains that the AMI communication network might come in handy when managing distributed generation, a development that has been jumpstarted in the province by recent regulatory activity. He explains that the Ontario Power Authority now has an incentive program under way to encourage small generation projects.
"This presents the potential for hundreds of individual 10-megawatt or less generators being connected to a distribution system," he says. "That presents a requirement for increased communication on that distribution system."
To date, D'Arcey reports that there are some 1,200 applications for small generation projects under way. "We're seeing everything from a couple of people in the country who want to share a 45 kilowatt generator to a group of farmers looking at a 10-megawatt wind turbine," he says.
By 2025, Ontario will likely need to replace about 80 percent of its current generation facilities, and government officials want to encourage conservation through smart metering. Such changes will require plenty of communication, and utility managers see opportunities to start the dialogue face-to-face as workers knock on the doors of those 1.3 million customers before completing meter change-outs.
"Hydro One views the smart metering project as a unique opportunity to educate consumers and strengthen customer relationships," explains project communications lead Dave Watts of Singer & Watts Limited.
To that end, the utility has delivered extensive customer-service training to installers and created an education package that is given to customers before the meter change-out. Watts also says plans are under way to offer customers "programs involving standards-based conservation devices, such as in-home energy monitors and automated thermostats." That should start giving customers the tools they need to do their part in demand management.
Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.