WEC Plans to Upgrade Members’ Meters

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New system will improve outage restoration, allow time-of-use rates

“These additional capabilities will assist us in outage restoration and in giving accurate restoration estimates, help our crews know what’s going on when there’s an issue on our system, enable us to do time-of-use rates and other types of rates, and better work with members who have solar and heat pumps.”

– Louis Porter

Washington Electric Co-op has preliminary approval for a state grant to pay for half of the upfront cost of replacing its outdated metering system, and is requesting bids from vendors. The new technology is called Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI. It’s an important component of grid responsiveness and resilience: meters are designed to give accurate outage locations, and electric use data can inform time-of-use rates and other custom rates to save members money and reduce the Co-op’s peak energy costs.

“One of the main ways Washington Electric communicates with our member-owners and their households is through our meters,” said General Manager Louis Porter. The current system communicates limited information from your meter to WEC right through the same copper power line that delivers your electricity. “Basically, we learn whether the meter is on or off,” said Porter. “It tells us very little about where actual problems are on our lines, because once we lose connection through the power line, we lose connection to all meters on the lines beyond the issue.” The current system can identify how many kilowatt hours you use – as you can tell from your bill – but doesn’t provide much information about when and how you use electricity. Advanced meters will also work better with devices and technology that have become more prevalent in the Co-op’s territory, accurately reading data where net metering installations, heat pumps, and variable-speed well pumps are in place.

Members expect WEC to respond to outages with speed and accuracy, explained Porter. Advanced metering provides what’s called “last gasp” data, sending a final signal when the power goes out. “That will greatly help us pinpoint issues on the power line,” he said. They also send frequent data including the time and voltage of electric use. “These additional capabilities will assist us in outage restoration and in giving accurate restoration estimates, help our crews know what’s going on when there’s an issue on our system, enable us to do time-of-use rates and other types of rates, and better work with members who have solar and heat pumps,” Porter said.

The state grant WEC anticipates is for $2.25 million. Porter explained that the Co-op is requesting information from vendors about the specific features of an advanced metering system, what it would cost, and how it would be implemented in WEC territory. More than ten years ago, WEC leaders opted to install a metering system that communicates through power lines in part because of concerns that a system that operates on radio frequencies wouldn’t work as well in mountainous, rural central Vermont. “That technology has improved a lot. We’re confident we can reach the vast majority of our members’ locations through the new meters,” said Porter. Advanced metering systems communicate through radio frequencies, wifi, or both. The type of system WEC installs depends on the options vendors present.

It will be a few years before the project is complete, Porter acknowledged, owing in part to a supply chain that is still slow-moving from pandemic delays and national demand for equipment that supports beneficial electrification. The full benefits of the new system, including the ability to identify voltage issues requiring intervention and accommodate solar and heat pumps, are available only to those who have the updated meters installed. Per state regulations, members who elect to opt out of installing new meters may do so without incurring extra fees. Porter is not yet sure how the Co-op will communicate with those members’ meters – he’s asked vendors to explore this in their bids – but the cost of running a background power line system, or sending a truck to read meters, would be absorbed by the membership.

While technology changes rapidly, the basic communication methods used by advanced meters – radio frequency and wifi – are unlikely to be supplanted by new tech anytime soon, and are already able to interface with other options like fiber and cellular service, according to Porter. And data collected by meters are safe: “We will use the same backend management of data we do now. The provider of our software package will protect future data just as we protect current data,” he pledged.

As WEC proceeds with the bidding and vendor selection process, continue to look for more information about advanced metering upgrades in Co-op Currents and on wec.coop.

What are the benefits of Advanced Metering Infrastructure?
In 2016 the US Department of Energy issued a report showing Advanced Metering Infrastructure provided benefits to electricity users and utilities. The report published these major findings:

– Reduced costs for metering and billing from fewer truck rolls, labor savings, more accurate and timely billing, fewer customer disputes, and improvements in operational efficiencies.

– More customer control over electricity consumption, costs, and bills from greater use of new customer tools (e.g., web portals and smart thermostats) and techniques (e.g., shifting demand to off-peak periods). 

– Lower utility capital expenditures and customer bill savings resulting from reduced peak demand and improvements in asset utilization and maintenance. 

– Lower outage costs and fewer inconveniences for customers from faster outage restoration and more precise dispatching of repair crews to the locations where they are needed. 

Advanced Metering Infrastructure and Customer Systems: 
Results from the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, September, 2016: https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/12/f34/AMI%20Summary%20Report_09-26-16.pdf