Greg Brehm, Director of Power Resources, Marin Clean Energy, California
Everywhere we look today, we are surrounded by smart technologies. From our phones, televisions, electric vehicles, and thermostats, to our light switches, devices incorporate the ability to filter and assimilate data in the background to make our lives more comfortable, efficient and convenient. There is one such device however, that may not be as smart as we think.
Smart meters, or advanced metering [Infrastructure/Initiative (AMI)] were first approved in California for PG&E in July of 2006 at a cost of $1.6 billion. SCE received approval in September of 2008 for $1.63 billion, and SoCalGas in April 2010 for $1.0669 billion. This $4.3 billion investment promised to enable utilities to provide customers with detailed energy consumption and time of use information, help utilities to better dispatch generation and empower customers to better manage their electric bills.
"Until AMI data can be delivered in near real time and in settlement quality, the potential benefits of all these devices will remain unfulfilled promises"
According to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Smart Meters were also expected to “allow for faster outage detection and power restoration and help the environment by offering the opportunity to reduce the need to build new power plants, or avoid the use of older, less efficient, greenhouse gas emitting power plants as customers lowered their electricity demand.”
Today, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and the associated data has yet to deliver on these promises. Select commercial customers, who install additional monitoring hardware, are starting to receive dynamic pricing signals to inform better consumption decisions however not all customers. New electric market participants like Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs) seeking to access AMI data in near real time to design better customer programs and incentives, monitor and schedule generation and consumption, and provide for more informed customer usage behavior are stymied. The majority of California ratepayers who are quite literally “paying the bill” for this AMI investment do not even receive the benefit when they do actively monitor and manage their consumption behavior. Even the utilities themselves, with the exception of SCE, do not use AMI data to settle residential customer bills based on a customer's actual time of use data.
Most residential customers may think that if they consciously shift their electricity use to less expensive off-peak periods they will save money, but they will be surprised to discover that regardless of the actual time of use data recorded by their smart meter, their electric bill is based upon a territory wide hourly profile and not their actual AMI time of use data. In simple terms, when their meter is read each month, their total monthly consumption is parsed into an hourly usage profile; a generic hourly shape that does not reflect their actual usage pattern but the utility’s average profile. So, our smart meters are delivering dumb data that informed customers willing to modify their electrical usage cannot use to manage their electric bills.
But what about faster outage detection, more efficient load forecasting, and power plant scheduling to capture environmental benefits and reduce green house gas emissions from less efficient power plants? All that “real time” usage data that is collected by your smart meter is downloaded once per day after midnight, and by the time it is available to load serving entities, to inform their generator scheduling decisions, it is already 48 hours old. Too late for adjustments to the next day ahead of power plant dispatch. Too late to inform prompt outage detection, and too late even to inform real time/ hour ahead generator dispatch. During the 2017 firestorms in Napa and Sonoma counties, an estimated 359,000 customers lost electric service. It is doubtful that even one of those customer outages was identified and had service restored as a result of AMI data monitoring. Certainly, the two CCAs serving customers in those areas received no outage information in a time frame that allowed for adjustments to power schedules.
Another significant issue is that the AMI data in not considered settlement quality. AMI data is often missing time intervals or entire meter reads. In order to use AMI data for settling customer bills, utilities first need to validate, edit, and estimate or (VEE) the data to find and fill any missing meter values with estimated data. Most AMI/ smart meter data in California does not undergo the VEE process and therefore cannot be used for billing, and this is why customer’s bills reflect a utility's system wide profile and not the customer's actual usage.
In some territories, the investments in smart meter/AMI infrastructure have led to smarter use of data and market efficiencies that can start to transform the power grid into a self-regulating stable network requiring minimal intervention by system operators. In other areas like California, with one of the highest penetrations of highly variable intermittent renewable generation like wind and solar; this AMI investment has yet to produce tangible benefits. The greatest potential benefits of smart meters and smart data are ready to be unlocked through emerging smart devices; “edge technologies” with computing infrastructure deployed close to sources of data in the power grid, such as smart electric vehicle charging, energy storage devices, industrial machines, pumps, compressors, wind turbines or smart solar inverters, and even home thermostats and light switches. These devices have the potential to monitor AMI data, grid frequency and voltage, and self-adjust their rate of charge, discharge and consumption, to provide other grid services to mitigate the dynamic nature of highly intermittent generation and consumption. Until AMI data can be delivered in near real time and in settlement quality, the potential benefits of all these devices will remain unfulfilled promises.