The Report

The rural path to a smarter grid

Posting in Energy

Smart grid technologies aren't for urban areas alone. But as Bluebonnet is discovering in Texas, the rural path to a modern utility system has its own unique obstacles.

Around the time YouTube launched, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative was in the midst of its own network transition. Even as YouTube was beginning to shuttle video bits around the Web at broadband speed, Bluebonnet was weaning itself off of a different sort of network: the human meter readers employed to collect power usage data manually from customer sites.

The systems that utility companies rely on to measure power consumption vary dramatically. Today, Bluebonnet uses an Automated Meter Reading (AMR) system (all human meter readers were offered new jobs), but Will Hollford, manager of public affairs at the cooperative, says it's not uncommon for rural power companies to still rely on human readers.

Even the type of automated metering solution Bluebonnet has in place isn't state-of-the-art. It requires the company to ping a meter before the device can send back information about electricity usage. An Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) system would allow Bluebonnet's meters to communicate information without an incoming request. However, AMI technology depends on wireless coverage from mobile phone carriers, something that is sparse in areas of Bluebonnet's customer footprint in Texas. Holford says that even two years ago, "there's no way that an AMI platform would have worked down here."

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the total number of AMI meters across the country stood at only 36 million in August 2012. There are more than 100 million households in the United States and countless commercial business sites.

Despite the challenges of upgrading utility infrastructure in a rural region, many power companies recognize the potential benefits. Initially, Bluebonnet implemented AMR because of advantages in operational efficiency. Data is recovered faster with an AMR system, and operators have more insight into the causes and extent of a power outage when it occurs.

Over time, however, the benefits of smart meters and smart devices in the home are even greater. They enable Bluebonnet to share electricity data with customers, giving individuals a chance to make better-informed decisions about energy consumption. Through the company's Net Energy Market Web portal, customers can break down power usage by hours or kilowatts, compare usage trends with weather patterns, and identify opportunities to save money and reduce their environmental impact.

While Bluebonnet still faces obstacles to implementing a more advanced AMI system -- something it expects to do in the future -- the utility is already thinking progressively about how its network will evolve.

For example, Bluebonnet recently conducted a two-year pilot program with 200 co-op members where it used smart devices in homes -- like connected thermostats and water pumps -- and linked them back to the utility through a cellular network. In addition to sharing the data from those devices with customers, Bluebonnet enabled participants to experiment with advanced smart grid functionality. It provided them with the ability to set up automated parameters around energy use, an application for controlling devices in the home remotely, and an option to hand access over to the power company, allowing it to implement energy-saving measures during periods of peak demand.

Bluebonnet's Manager of Energy Programs Wesley Brinkmeyer thinks learning from trial programs like these is critical. As connected energy devices proliferate -- both through utilities and through retail stores -- Brinkmeyer says that, "the role of Bluebonnet will be looking at how can we help integrate these two worlds. ... How can we realize the benefits of [utility advances and new retail devices] and enhance them for that member as well as enhance them for the grid?"

While the user response to Bluebonnet's pilot program was highly positive, Holford emphasizes that customers were in complete control at all times. Even when Bluebonnet took command of a thermostat to reduce power load, the company instantly ceded control if a customer manually changed the settings or logged in to the online system.

"One of the things that Bluebonnet is very sensitive to ... is how our members perceive us," says Holford, and trust and control are a big part of that equation.

As more energy-consuming devices are networked back to a service provider, the issue of trust will only grow more complex. Some retail device manufacturers, utilities, cable and telecom operators, and data analytics companies are already collaborating to share information. Will these partnerships grow? And if so, how will consumers react to having more data collected and analyzed by large corporate entities?

If there are any grand alliances in the future, how they play out won't only be an issue of money, but of how people respond to having more of their lives monitored and guided by service providers.

In the meantime, U.S. utility companies are in vastly different stages of the transition to smart grid technologies. It will be a messy progression, and likely a long one. But even in rural America, the march to a smarter grid is on.

Image courtesy of pgegreenenergy on Flickr

Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure