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Smart Meters: Not Just For Electricity Anymore

To get a truly smart grid, everything must be smart. The next step, smart water meters that monitor your water use and let utilities pinpoint the exact location of leaks.

Smart Meters: Not Just For Electricity Anymore

Every day, there’s news from communities throughout the world about the adaptation of smart technologies that will have a decisive impact on energy consumers and utility companies.

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Advanced metering infrastructure–smart meters–report on consumer electricity usage at regular intervals throughout the day instead of monthly. This data will be available to customers online, allowing them to track their household energy consumption. This data can then be used by the utility for implementing programs that encourage customers to use less energy at peak times and potentially receive a credit for this behavior on their utility bill. In addition, the utility can use the smart meter information for maintenance and power restoration needs.

Smart meters are just one component of a smart grid system that will ultimately improve reliability, customer response, and management capabilities, among other benefits. And smart grid systems are the foundation for the overall movement towards smart integrated infrastructure, which could someday connect and align disparate infrastructure components to achieve maximum efficiencies and conservation efforts.

Smart meters, however, don’t only have to be for electricity. Water is another great example of what such smart systems can accomplish. When distribution systems are integrated with the latest telecommunications advances, customers can manage their water usage through a smartphone or an in-home monitor.
If your clothes washer or faucet is leaking, you’ll know in a matter of minutes. Homeowners can then address the situation before they have wasted money on water, and are faced with potential costly home repairs. Smart indeed!

It’s smart business for the utilities as well. They save on maintenance costs from the get-go because remote monitoring can eliminate the need for on-site inspections of pumps, valves, and water quality. And since smart water meters more accurately measure water usage, the utility can gauge how to most cost-efficiently control the electricity required to operate water treatment and distribution systems. The utility would simply adjust its usage choices to whatever time of day provides the lowest electricity rates. The off-peak-time cost savings can then be passed on to the consumer.

A key benefit of intelligent infrastructure for water utilities is the ability to detect and determine where leaks in water mains are and where to make investments in repairs and rehabilitation. Intelligent infrastructure can also reduce the need to play the guessing game about when and where to reinvest in buried infrastructure. This ultimately provides customers with more reliable and efficient service.

The business impact of smart integrated infrastructure is potentially vast. Utilities–electric, gas, and water–can now invest in a suite of technologies that collect operational data on the distributed equipment in their networks. Information relayed to a central data center enables utilities to quickly detect and correct problems in remote sectors of the systems and make business decisions based on the information they retrieve. Should it repair a defective component or replace it? What are the costs, benefits, and risks of each option across the whole system?

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In other words, the integrated data allows for more than an equipment fix. From a business standpoint, it’s a blueprint for ongoing resource allocation and capital investment.

Yet for all the tangible economic and environmental benefits of this potentially revolutionary approach, there are still challenges ahead, including public perceptions and the public policies those perceptions influence, both of which are contributing factors for why many other countries are outpacing the United States in implementing these systems.

To put these problems in context, consider first some examples of how smart meter systems have been deployed in the United States. America’s largest municipal utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has chosen to expand its advanced metering infrastructure to serve both commercial and industrial customers. NV Energy of Nevada is currently working to install smart meters that will benefit its 2.4 million electric customers in the state.

Meanwhile, many other countries and regional governments are setting goals for entire populations, instead of on a utility-by-utility basis. Italy, for example, has the world’s largest smart meter system, with more than 27 million customers. In Canada, the government of Ontario has surpassed its smart meter deployment target. In 2009, the U.K. set a goal of putting smart meters in all homes by 2020, the largest rollout ever.

To be sure, these global initiatives have faced obstacles and delays. What is striking, however, is the sense of commitment that public entities, especially in Europe, bring to these particular energy efficiencies. Yet both in the U.S. and abroad, health, privacy, and price concerns shadow the progress we’re making.

In Vermont, for example, citizens are worried about the health impact of radio waves emitted by the wireless communications used in a proposed smart meter system. Some worry that energy usage monitoring can lead to snooping on consumers. Public officials in Connecticut question whether the grid will actually save customers money.

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These fears are easily and credibly assuaged, but the challenge for the industry goes further. As an industry, we must hammer home the benefits, first, of the smart systems being deployed, and, second, of the vaster integrated infrastructures that will evolve as our information-gathering tools–and the analytics used to assess the business impact of that information–continue to improve.

There’s even more we need to talk to the public about. Let’s talk about how integrated infrastructures have been shown to enhance health care and social services, which, in turn, has incalculable economic value as it reduces the cost of government and allows the elderly and the handicapped to live more independently.

Let’s marshal all such evidence from throughout the world as we make our case for smarter infrastructure. The immediate cost of further developing and deploying smart infrastructure technology is a small price to pay for permanent relief from a current system that, at the end of the day, seems tantamount to a tax burden few citizens believe is equitable or efficient.

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About the author

Marty Travers is the president of Black & Veatch’s telecommunications division.

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