Some thoughts on the battle to measure electricity consumption in real time.
Fortnightly Magazine - October 1 2000


Meter Men?



Some thoughts on the battle to measure electricity consumption in real time.

How can something so simple as an electric meter bring governments, editors, and the utility industry to their knees?

This year I spent my Labor Day weekend on the computer and phone with meter industry experts, trying to understand why grown men cry over a seemingly innocent plan by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to install a better class of utility meters so that electricity customers can watch the price spike hour by hour, rather than having to wait till the end of the month to learn the bad news.

You'll find some of the details inside this issue, in the article I researched on SDG&E's landmark effort to install real-time energy meters. But as often happens, events intervened to force the editor to leave some of the story on the cutting room floor. On this occasion, however, there was just enough time to pick up some of the fragments and hold them to light.

"I'm sure they will protest our plan. They believe utility shareholders should pay for any investment in real-time metering. Of course, that would kill any chance for AMR in California."

That was Ed Fong talking, on Sept. 5. He is director of revenue-cycle services (metering and billing) at SDG&E. He was anticipating a protest against his company's metering plan from the Office of Ratepayer Advocates at the California Public Utilities Commission. And a few days earlier I had heard that Steve Linsey of the ORA had promised to file just such a protest by Sept. 7.

Meanwhile, Fong was trying to do business in the real world. I asked him, "Have you met with vendors and bidders about your request for proposal?" He answered, "Yes, we had a bidders conference on Sept. 1." And was that by telephone conference call or a real face-to-face? "It was an actual physical meeting," Fong assured me. "Here in San Diego."

Fong confirmed that in the RFP, his company had expressed a "very, very strong preference" for vendors who comply with standard C12.19, otherwise known as the "Tucker Tables," as defined by the American National Standards Institute.

"And I'll tell you," he added. "If we could rewrite the RFP today, we would make that a requirement."

"So I take it that you feel the ORA's concerns are overblown because you're doing your best to promote open architecture?"

"Exactly," he replied.

"But what SDG&E decided to do was to not wait for the state to complete the process," complains Michael Jaske. "Instead, they filed this very vague application."

Jaske is known as the chief expert on utility metering among the professional staff at the California Energy Commission. He explains how regulators are still fussing about whether interval meters make sense for the typical residential customer-even those customers still taking bundled service from the distribution utility.

"In its original decision on direct access," says Jaske, "the PUC required an interval meter for all customers with demand levels above 20 kilowatts. But later," he adds, "the PUC deferred that requirement for customers between 20 kW and 50 kW , so that today only those above 50 kW must have interval meters.

"The judge assigned to that case has asked a series of questions about whether load profiles have been beneficial or detrimental, and whether the exemption should be continued, and importantly, whether interval meters should be used for bundled customers below 50 kW. That ruling has smoked out preliminary positions among various parties regarding internal metering: what class of customers, what kind of technology, what kind of deployment?

"The PUC conducted a workshop on these issues in late June, and has asked for followup comments by the third week in September. These comments supposedly will form the basis for a PUC decision to be issued next spring."

"Basically," says Jaske, "we prefer a competitive deployment of metering systems as opposed to a monolithic utility deployment, especially for customers 50 kW and higher. But I myself have some ambivalence about what to do below 50 kW, and whether that kind of multi-system overlay doesn't just increase system costs."

Now, if you're following along with Jaske, you'll notice that by next spring, the PUC will have been pondering for three years whether to require real-time meters for customers below 50 kW. That's the meter biz.

Yet amid all this gloom, meter guru Howard Scott has found a silver lining. Scott, a managing partner at Cognyst Consulting, and the publisher of the well-regarded Scott Report (see, writes as follows:

"After reading the SDG&E request to provide real-time energy meters, I've had a change of heart and have reached a different conclusion than when we last talked. A key reason is a factor not discussed in SDG&E's request.

"You see, as electromechanical meters get older, they become less accurate. It is very rare that they speed up as they get older. Usually they slow down. Older meters tend to not charge their customers for the full usage, thus saving them money.

"Now I see that in its request, SDG&E focuses on the 2 percent of large customers that it says consume 46 percent of the energy at system peak. Now if the meters of these large customers are under-registering energy usage, then the rest of the customers are paying for the uncharged energy. These unrealized charge-backs can be expensive to residential users if many large customers have inaccurate meters. In all likelihood, some of these large customers have meters with this problem."

So there you have it. If SDG&E should follow through and install those high-tech real-time meters, the savings to customers will come perhaps not so much from tailoring demand to avoid the price spikes, but because the plan will replace all those inaccurate meters that up to now have allowed large-volume customers to go "scott" free, subsidized by you and me.

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