Top executives at AEP, the California ISO, and El Paso Electric address key challenges and opportunities.
Deconstructing the Information Superhighway: A Map for Utilities
data, including pie charts and other graphics, after the data has been received by the utility, checked for accuracy, and processed into higher value data (such as a usage analysis). Data could be displayed via an Internet connection to the personal computer or on the television.
Getting on and off the broadband link at each end of the
connection involves significant cost, however. Even free communications capacity may prove uneconomic for automated metering services. The homeowner's existing telephone line is available at no cost to move metering data when the phone is not in use. But widespread use of this approach remains prohibitively expensive, due to high installation and in-meter device costs. There are also limits on performance, because the telephone network was optimized for voice communications, not data. Moreover, the utility has no control over the network or its performance.
Wideband wireless. These networks (em which include cellular and emerging technologies, such as PCS and radio packet data (as provided by Metricom, Ram, Ardis, and Cellular Digital Packet Data) (em target mobile professionals, providing voice and laptop-to-laptop communications. They support, for example, transfers of entire files from one mobile computer to another. Cost and price start at around $20 per month, making these networks cost-prohibitive for most customer- oriented energy services, but
effective solutions for other needs, such as crew communications and dispatch.
The cost of these solutions is driven by the function required in the end-use devices (em i.e., whether they are data modems or voice handsets. High output power is required of the device, there is a need to handle "hand-offs" as the user moves from cell to cell in the radio network, and devices must be able to handle the complexity of searching for and accessing an available radio frequency from among those used by the network in a particular geographic area.
Narrowband wireless. These networks represent an emerging market sector. (CellNet's KCPL rollout is the first commercial installation.) They can handle millions of end points; support short, bursty data; and involve low device and installation costs. Automated metering is a key application, requiring a monthly price of only $1 or less as well as access to meters in basements, outdoors, in pits (water), or via an "intrinsically safe" connection (gas). Utilities can move forward with automated meter reading without precluding future technologies, since wireless metering is complimentary to, rather than competitive with, emerging technologies.
Local area networks. "Inbuilding" networks are receiving increased attention. These run on the existing electricity wires, using power-line carrier communications to link an in-building controller (thermostat, energy management unit, personal computer, or other) to appliances and equipment. The goal is to embed the power-line carrier device in new appliances. Existing technology ("X-10"), which has been available for over a decade, requires external communications modules. These networks facilitate personal con-venience (remote turn-off of lights) and energy management (monitoring and control in response to changing energy prices). If initial pilot projects are any indication, broadband will likely provide the interface for in-building networks. However, some utilities (e.g., PacifiCorp) are experimenting with wireless links as well.