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A Hard Look at BPL: Utilities Speak Out

After closer study of the technology’s ongoing implementation and obstacles, the crystal ball remains cloudy.
Fortnightly Magazine - April 2006

deployment in Manassas and Flatonia, but regulatory obstacles don’t top the list of obstructions for the six utilities surveyed.

“Although they acknowledge that regulatory support is important to BPL implementation, all of the utilities we spoke with felt that regulatory concerns pale in comparison with issues of technology performance and business strategy when formulating a BPL plan,” the report says.

In addition, rather than raising new impediments to broadband services, regulators are eager to roll out the service to rural areas, and to build up a third alternative (in addition to DSL and cable) for the delivery of broadband.

After the many natural disasters last year, and with the continuing threat of terrorist attacks, regulators also see “the potential for BPL to enable a more flexible, self-healing power transmission and distribution grid,” the report says.

How Cost-Effective?

The use of BPL for internal utility applications to bolster the grid has delivered mixed results, at best, in terms of cost and benefits. According to an EPRI report still being finalized, BPL’s “smart grid” applications rank near the bottom of the list of eight other competing technologies. Based on 11 separate criteria, “BPL ranked eighth out of the nine [wide-area network] technologies considered,” pulling “particularly low marks on standardization and use of object modeling.”

Also proving problematic for BPL deployment: higher deployment costs, and the potential service disruptions during power outages or any other time there’s a lack of electrical current across the power line.

The report adds one caveat, however. “Several of the criteria used in this rating are tied to the current state of technology maturation, which accounts for some of BPL’s low ranking.”

Considered Delays

Fundamental questions about the technology itself linger for larger utilities. First Energy “commented that it is still not clear that BPL technologies live up to their hype,” while Con Edison cited “credibility issues” with BPL. Even Cinergy acknowledged a “significant problem” in integrating BPL with electricity meters. Nevertheless, the company “believes that by installing BPL for current utility applications (even if another technology could perform equally well) utilities gain the advantage of extra bandwidth that will be useful in the future for more advanced utility applications (such as Intelligrid or Smart Grid applications).”

But beyond any problems inherent in BPL techology itself is the institutional risk aversion on the part of the industry. The study cites an internal evaluation of BPL by Central Hudson, which led the company to conclude that it was too early to begin testing the technology. “The key reason cited was that there are not yet enough utilities (especially smaller, investor-owned utilities) actively involved in the market,” the report says.

Other utilities may be too limited in their thinking about BPL’s potential beyond traditional utility applications. The report concludes that a utility’s “comfort level with moving beyond their core business appears to be an issue.”