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By Ann Thelen

Some 30 years ago, cell phones were emerging in the marketplace and gained popularity in the mid-1990s. Back then, the mass appeal was the ability to place and receive phones calls – the nearly lone feature of the bulky handheld devices. 

Fast forward to today, and cell phones are vital communication tools. They go far beyond being a conversation tool. They are high-powered cameras; device controllers via apps, including the ability to turn lights off and on and control the thermostat; calendar organizers; entertainment centers for games and videos; and generally, technology wizards.

The same can be said for digital or electronic meter technology. Often referred to as smart meters, it’s the digital technology that’s the key element and “smart” is often a buzzword. What led to these types of meters earning the “smart” phrase is the increased amount of information that a digital metering platform offers to users. While there is increased attention on these types of meters, they aren’t new. What is new, however, is the evolving technology that continues to change the benefits of the devices – similar to the advancing technology of cell phones.

Technology goes way back

Like many of Iowa’s electric cooperatives, North West Rural Electric Cooperative and Franklin Rural Electric Cooperative have been using digital meter technology to serve members since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

North West REC serves members in Sioux, O’Brien, Plymouth and Ida counties in northwest Iowa. The co-op started to make the switch from analog (mechanical) meters to digital meters in the 1980s when it started using them for irrigation and commercial/industrial loads, which had time-of-use rates.

“I refer to our early digital meters as a first-generation meter,” explains Lyle Korver, CEO of North West REC. “Those meters were one-way communication devices. We could read the meter from the office, but we couldn’t communicate back to the meter.”

The co-op waited for metering technology to advance and adopted what it dubs as second-generation digital meters 12 years ago. These meters, which are still in use today, use the cooperative’s distribution power lines to provide two-way communication between the meter and the cooperative. The benefits have been impressive, including consistent meter reading, better outage management, the ability to investigate blinks, resolving power usage questions, managing power use during peak demand times and overall better data. 

“Up until 12 years ago, members were reading the meters, and consistent readings were difficult because of schedules and other priorities,” Korver says. “When a meter is read on varying days, it affects the monthly power bill – potentially higher one month over another.”

Benefits keep increasing

Franklin REC serves members in six Iowa counties, including Franklin, the southern one-third of Cerro Gordo, and portions of Butler, Floyd, Hardin and Wright. General Manager Becky Bradburn agrees with Korver that better outage management rises to the top as one of the key benefits of digital meters, which Franklin also calls Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). 

“If we receive a call that a member is without power, we can send a test signal to the meter from the office and also neighbors’ meters,” Bradburn says. “We can quickly determine if the outage is related to something on our power lines that we need to address or if the outage is specific to the member. Having this data at our fingertips aids the power restoration process.”

Franklin’s line crews also have iPads in their vehicles, which allow them to use the digital technology wherever they are located. If they have reports of an outage 10 miles away, they can test the meter right from the iPad. Not only have digital meters saved an extensive amount of vehicle fuel and wear and tear because meter readers don’t have to drive from house to house, they also save considerable staff time. 

“Digital meters free up time so that our staff can focus on providing more services and benefits to our members,” Bradburn says. “When our on-call linemen go home at night, the iPads are with them. If an outage happens in the middle of the night, they can first send a signal to the meter right from home to gather information.”

What’s next?

North West REC is launching a pilot project early this year with the next generation of digital meters, which will communicate via wireless radio frequency (RF) technology. Among the enhanced benefits of using wireless meters versus the existing over-the-wire technology is the ability to stay on if power lines come down from a severe storm or other cause. For those concerned about RF emissions, Korver says studies show the RFs of the meters are lower or comparable to many daily use devices, such as cell phones, microwaves, wireless routers or TVs.

“With the new meters, we’ll know about an outage before a member ever calls us because the meter won’t sense voltages. The backup battery on the meter will give a ‘last-breath’ report showing the meter is out of power,” Korver says. “We’ll be able to restore power more quickly and efficiently with these meters.”

Another significant benefit of the new meters will be the ability to provide members with real-time energy use information. The meters can be programmed to read hourly, every four hours, daily or whatever timeframe the member desires. The meter will tie into SmartHub applications for increased usage information. “We’ve had a load management system in place for 30 years, but it’s a one-way system. We can send a signal to a water heater or air conditioning unit to turn off, but we don’t receive data to show it happened,” Korver says. “With our pilot project, we will be able to see the activity by opening up two-way communication and integrate our load management and meter reading into one robust system.”

Bradburn also appreciates the data that digital meters provide. For example, if a member notices his or her bill is higher than expected one month, information is available to graph. The data will show exactly when increased use occurred. Then, the member can address potential causes of the spike. From an energy efficiency perspective, members can see year-over-year impacts of energy efficiency improvements in the home and see firsthand benefits in their wallets. 

Just as we’ve witnessed with cell phones, computers, online shopping, bill paying and a host of other services, technology does not stand still. Electric cooperatives embrace technology to continuously enhance a commitment to the safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible delivery of electric service. Metering technology has a positive impact on all four of these key areas.

“One of our strategic goals is using technology to serve our members more efficiently. Digital, automated metering systems have been one of the best investments. They have helped us to gain many efficiencies, which benefits our members and the co-op,” Korver adds. “Technology is consistently improving, so it’s a priority to continue to look for ways to deliver enhanced value for our members.”  

Ann Thelen is the editor of Living with Energy in Iowa.

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