PUD Upgrades to Smart Tech

New Technology Will Offer Improved Customer Service and Grid Management

An OpenWay Riva smart meter is shown in a residential installation. Northern Wasco County PUD will soon be installing similar smart grid technology within its district. Contributed photo/Itron

Most of the residential customers in Northern Wasco County PUD’s system will soon get new meters as part of a “smart grid” upgrade.

The new meters will be able to send information back and forth along the grid that will help PUD staff more efficiently respond to outages and service changes, manage load, and potentially provide new services in the future.

The PUD Board of Directors approved a contract with General Pacific at their Feb. 6 meeting. General Pacific is the local provider of the Itron meters that will be used for the project. Installation should start around July, estimates Paul Titus, Principal Engineer and Strategic Asset Planner for the PUD.

Paul expects the rollout to begin in The Dalles’ core area and work its way out.

“Part of that is because of the communication network that’s set up,” he says. “The meters actually hop, or use each other to create a mesh network between themselves.”

The technology being used for the project is called OpenWay Riva and is described by Itron as “the next-generation IoT (Internet of Things) Solution for Smart Utilities and Cities.”

Electricity isn’t the only use for this technology. Itron describes a smart city as having smart utilities at its foundation where energy and water use can be “monitored and proactively managed for waste reduction, conservation, and sustainability goals.

The technology is based on one multipurpose network that could potentially serve a variety of purposes, in addition to managing the PUD’s grid. For example, if city water chose to implement smart technology, they could potentially join the same network.

“New devices and applications can be added easily to the network, just like a new laptop or a printer would be added to an enterprise-class IT network,” Itron states.

Just within the PUD system, new uses are expected to become available over time, Paul says. “Initially, we are looking at just getting the meters out in the field and starting to be able to look at data before we start expanding on other options we may be able to provide,” he says.

Improved load management is one of the benefits of the smart grid technology. The meters communicate with each other locally and can identify when a transformer is approaching overload conditions. Once identified, the system can analyze the situation and determine whether to make adjustments to avoid the overload.

“If needed, we can go out during normal working hours and change the transformer to solve the problem,” Paul says.

The smart grid can also detect historically underutilized transformers, Paul says, which may prompt a switch to a smaller transformer.

“That could lead to lower transformer loss throughout our system.” The system can also detect unsafe grid conditions such as a “hot socket.”

“That’s when the jaws of the meter become loose over time, which creates micro-arcing,” Paul says, which can melt the back of the meter.

The new technology can also detect changes in electricity current flows and voltage levels in the distribution network that could indicate theft of power.

This is an opportune time to do such a project, Paul says.

“We feel it goes hand in hand with being able to provide more benefits to our customers that we were not able to do with older, analog meters.” Over half of the meters are 30 years or older and feature gears and dials that can get out of tolerance and slow down or speed up over time, causing declining accuracy.

New meters will help make sure everyone is being charged fairly for electrical services and provide information that can benefit the customer. First among those benefits is automated meter reading, which can reduce errors and improve billing performance.

Customers may remember getting estimated bills in 2016 during heavy snows because readers couldn’t make their rounds. Now that information will be transmitted directly to the office, eliminating the need for estimated bills.

In addition, service will be able to be turned on and off immediately at the office, rather than requiring a truck to roll to do manual starts and stops. This is particularly time-saving at apartment complexes and rental houses, where service may need to be restored within a few days. The availability of meter data also means that closing bills can be produced while the customer is in the office.

The smart grid will also provide better outage notification, and help get the power back on more quickly.

“If we had a smart grid notification on your meter at 9 a.m. we can have someone investigate the outage, find the problem, take care of it, and turn the power back on before you come back home and the only reason you would know you had an outage is because the clocks are blinking.”

In the case of widespread outages as a result of storms, for example, when PUD crews roll out to make repairs, the grid can detect isolated outage pockets that may not have been restored with the initial repairs and could have required a second repair run. Instead, they can identify these pockets and make further repairs while still in the area.

In the future, the smart grid could potentially work with household devices that are part of the Internet of Things. For example, someone with an electric vehicle charger connected to the grid that is part of a program that allows it to be turned off if a related transformer is being overloaded could have that done automatically until the load drops.

Another future use could be in providing prepaid electrical service.

This may be an option for people who can’t afford the initial deposit or don’t want to share their credit information. Instead, they would be able to pay ahead for power service, similar to filling up a car with gas, and the PUD would notify them when dollars are getting low.

“I think we will be getting more information than we know what to do with to begin with,” Paul says. “We are just starting to get into this.”