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Integrating Metering & Information Systems

Fortnightly Magazine - February 1 1998

restructuring, energy customers will have a say in selecting their meter, so long as it meets standards.

The Meter Appliance:

"Smart" or "Dumb"?

Just as superior electronic phones replaced the rotary telephone, the modern "smart" meter will replace the "dumb" electromechanical meter omnipresent in American homes and businesses today.

Smart meters will incorporate the latest microprocessors, communications and applications to take advantage of the opportunities of competition. Two key technologies needed to bring this transformation about are available today: smart, affordable meters and low-cost, pervasive, public, two-way radio networks such as cellular phone and pager networks. The missing ingredient is the regulatory (deregulatory?) framework that allows the competitive market to apply these technologies, including open standards for meter-communications and data models.

The "smart" meter (such as the ABB Alpha meter) has been available to larger business customers using three-phase power for several years; nearly one million have been successfully deployed in the United States to date; 96 percent of all polyphase meters sold today are electronic. These meters, such as the ABB PowerPlus Alpha, provide much more than simple kilowatt-hour energy measurement; they provide power quality monitoring, outage detection, two-way communications and real-time pricing. Customers also can use electronic meters with a computer to retrieve current or historic usage. Lower-cost, single-phase versions of the same electronic meters are available.

With the growth of the smart meter has also come an entirely new family of application software that allows customers to improve energy quality. Applications available to consumers via smart meters will include better monitoring and management of energy consumption; tracking of service quality, outage duration and power quality; monitoring of large-appliance loads and power-conditioning effects; and even advanced energy control and control of loads such as air conditioners in response to energy prices. Features can also be added to the meter to enhance power-system reliability, such as autonomous response to low-frequency and low-voltage conditions or to provide whole-house surge protection.

New, smart meters are 20 percent more accurate than the old ones. The standard for electromechanical meters is that they should be accurate to within 0.5 percent of full scale when new. Over time, as they wear, they slow and become less accurate. This inaccuracy is biased in favor of the consumer and lost in the rate base. Tomorrow someone will have to pay for it.

Network Connections:

Public or Private?

Today there are automatic meter reading systems that use special-purpose, proprietary and private communications networks to communicate with the meters. Older systems employed power line carrier technology (PLC) which used the actual electric power line to reach the meter. Today private radio networks are used instead. In either case, a communications module is installed in the meter to send meter reading data out over the private system. While PLC is a viable option, it offers limited capability and bandwidth.

Just as PLC was necessarily a "closed" system owned by the utility and only usable by them, the current model for private radio networks is the same. These private radio networks are only usable for metering, have limited communications capabilities compared with