MICHIGAN’S CONSUMERS Energy has begun to collect its customers’ electricity usage data as well as natural-gas consumption data via the same Itron Inc. smart meter. It is doing so through one of the few shared largescale cellular networks in operation.
The effort is part of a larger $750-million modernization push in which the state’s largest utility has already installed more than 800,000 cellular-enabled smart meters.
“We are one of the first large utilities in the country to utilize the cellular solution,” said Dennis McKee, communication director for the Smart Energy Program at Consumers, which provides service to a total of 6.6 million Michigan residents. “It provides us great coverage in our service territory, which is a combination of extensive rural areas and a multitude of more densely populated urban areas.”
Cellular smart meters are expected to become more common as cellular service rates decline.
Consumers plans to install more than 1.1 million more of the smart meters, which are made by Liberty Lake, Washington- based Itron Inc. The biggest smart meter company in North America, Itron has been pushing in this direction since acquiring SmartSynch, a cellular smart meter company, for $100 million in early 2012. The deployment it’s doing for Consumers had been a SmartSynch account.
The meters use existing 4G cellular networks to transmit daily readings, broken down hour-by-hour, to the utility, reducing the need for manual readings and the likelihood of estimated bills when meters can’t be accessed.
For customers who receive both gas and electric service, the company has now installed more than 60,000 gas meter modules, which transmit daily natural gas consumption readings to the electric meters for cellular upload to the utility. Consumers is planning to install 610,000 of the modules.
Having one device communicate with the utility helps keep things simple and more cost-effective, said Sharelynn Moore, Itron’s vice president of global marketing and public affairs.
“I think the trend is one network, many things,” she said.
“It lowers the cost of network deployment.”
The meters receive gas readings through a radio frequency transmission from the gas meter modules and upload both readings to Consumers through cellular networks run by Verizon and others, said Moore.
Utilities use a variety of networks to receive smart meter data, typically combinations of cellular transmissions, wired transmissions through the grid itself and transmissions through radio-frequency networks.
California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, for example, has deployed more than 9 million smart meters that collect daily gas readings and electricity readings every 15 minutes, sending them to the utility through the company’s own wireless communication network. And Tennessee’s Memphis Light, Gas and Water is in the midst of a project to install smart meters to track all three services, which the utility says also have the potential to quickly detect outages, leaks and other problems.
In general, smart meters are most commonly deployed by those natural gas companies that also provide electric service – particularly in areas where regulators allow them to combine metering hardware for additional savings, according to Oracle Utilities.
Consumers plans to enable its smart meters to detect and report outages and let customers track their day-to-day usage online, the company said. The hour-by-hour data collected by the smart meters may also enable new rate options letting customers buy cheaper power at off-peak times, McKee said.
The overall program is expected to deliver a total $1.9 billion benefit to consumers, the company estimated in regulatory filings, he said.
The utility’s deal with Itron includes a 20-year maintenance agreement – though much of that maintenance will be in the form of automatic, over-the-air firmware updates similar to those that cellphones receive, said Moore.
Residential customers don’t have to be home to have the new meters installed, the company said in a statement, though they’ll be given about 30 days’ notice before the meters are installed and can schedule an appointment if they wish. Should they wish to opt out of using smart meters altogether – something some utility customers have done amid privacy concerns – they can pay a one-time fee of $69.39 and a $9.72 monthly meter reading charge, the company said.