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Utilities Bullish on Meter-Reading Technology

Fortnightly Magazine - January 15 1995

are approximately 234 million meters in the United States and Canada (110 million electric meters,

54 million gas meters, and 70 million water meters), with an average conversion price of $50 to $75 per meter.

The benefits for utilities are attractive, too. Chris Slaboszewicz, CellNet's vice president of sales and marketing, estimates that TOU residential rates, made possible by AMR, can help utilities avoid $18 billion in future power plant investment. The new AMR technologies will enable utilities to vary electricity prices throughout the day, encouraging customers to reduce their consumption at peak periods. Residential TOU rates could provide 40 percent of the peaking capacity needed by the end of the decade (see, PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY, Mar. 15, 1994, p. 47).

Cree Edwards, vice president of business development and cofounder of CellNet, says his company is retrofitting the meters for KCPL and will charge a monthly meter-reading fee of about 75 cents. Installing the transmitters into the meters is a relatively simple process; in the first phase of installation, CellNet retrofitted 5,000 meters in 10 days.

CellNet also has signed contracts to deploy limited automation systems for Northern States Power in its Minneapolis/St. Paul system, and for Georgia Power Co. in metropolitan Atlanta, which is gearing up for the 1996 Summer Olympics. It will also expand Pacific Gas & Electric's system.

These systems can monitor power usage and system performance on a real-time basis, detect faults in power lines, and immediately reroute power around troubled areas (em all from the utility's control center. CellNet will provide capacitor bank control, power-quality monitoring, AMR for major customers, line recloser control, and switch control.

CellNet, a privately held company founded in 1984, completed a $31-million equity private placement last year. Investors include some blue-chip venture capital firms, such as AT&T Ventures and Barclays USA Corp.

Another utility opting for a wireless AMR system is Public Service Co. of Colorado, which signed a $23-million contract with Itron to install 333,000 transmitters on gas and electric meters in the Denver area, and to provide supporting hardware and software. These modules will be read remotely by mobile vans, and are compatible with a fixed-network AMR test system that Public Service installed last year.

Public Service vice president Ross King says the Itron AMR system will "dramatically improve our meter-reading efficiency and customer service," and will establish a base for expanding to a fixed-network system. "Aggressiveness in automation is strategic to our goal as a low-cost energy supplier," King adds.

Itron also reached agreement last year with Southern California Edison Co. to conduct a test that will interconnect Itron's Genesis AMR system with Edison's own data communications network, to demonstrate that Itron's transmitters can also be read by third-party networks. Edison serves 4.1 million customers in its Southern California service territory.

Itron was formed in 1977 to develop technology that would enable utilities to provide onsite meter reading for a customer, but unfortunately, the idea never caught on with customers. Undaunted, the company shifted its focus to develop the handheld microcomputers widely used by meter readers today. Some form