SmartSynch Releases Wi-Fi-enabled SmartMeters

Earlier this week, Jackson, Mississippi-based SmartSynch announced the deployment of what may turn out to be the magic beans muni wireless providers have been looking for.

SmartSynch’s Wi-Fi-enabled SmartMeters offer the potential for a self-sustaining municipal wireless business model. By enabling Wi-Fi-based regulation and control of electricity within a municipality (or even just part of one), SmartSynch and its client Burbank Water and Power (BWP) believe that the cost of deployment can be recouped quickly, and that the cost of maintenance and expansion can be easily covered over the life of the network.

BWP provides 45,000 households and 6,000 businesses over an 18-square-mile area in Burbank, California with water and electricity. Once fully deployed, the new Wi-Fi network will cover the entire city, and SmartSynch’s Wi-Fi-enabled SmartMeters will monitor BWP’s total energy load. To begin, BWP deployed a Wi-Fi network over its 20-acre campus. The next phase will see it move on to include its 100 largest consumers.

“We have 55,000 meters,” says Fletcher, “but 100 of those account for 50% of consumption.”

By targeting his largest customers first, rather than attempting to roll out a network that blankets the city, Fletcher is maximizing his ROI.

“We expect it will cost $5 million to deploy,” says Fletcher. “But we’ll do the first 100 meters for $1 million.

“If this system is able to shave five megawatts off my peak through better conservation, and demand response, and energy efficiency, that will more than pay for the cost. Five megawatts is worth to me in capital costs about $7.5 million to $10 million.”

Until now, BWP, which is an enterprise of the city using money from sales of electricity and water, rather than municipal tax revenues to fund itself, received electricity usage information from meters once a month. Whenever electricity demand exceeded the supply, BWP would buy expensive power on the open market or conduct voluntary reductions. With SmartSynch’s new Wi-Fi-enabled SmartMeters, BWP can significantly improve energy efficiency and generation margins, something that appeals both to the cost-conscious and the environmentally-conscious.

Henry Jones, CTO for SmartSych, says, “In the muni Wi-Fi ecosystem, people rarely understand where the value comes from, or what those industries are all about. Fred’s found a way to make those applications support his network and its growth. It’s a greater business case for a muni Wi-Fi network than we’ve seen before.”

Back and forth

The SmartSynch Wi-Fi-enabled SmartMeters provide two-way communications, which allows BWP to request and receive real-time energy usage information. This allows for the immediate resolution of energy supply issues, which significantly reduces expenses.

“Imagine having the meter reader at every building 24 hours a day, seven days a week, reporting back, suggesting ways to use less energy,” says Jones. “You could then develop rates based on how much is consumed in a month, or you can charge different amounts for different times of day.”

The SmartMeters will also save money by automating processes, such as distributing, collecting, and organizing detailed energy usage data.

While the advent of real-time meter reading is good news for the utility, it’s also good news for customers who can, for the first time, make truly informed decisions about their use of electricity. They can reduce their impact on the environment and reduce their monthly bills by doing laundry at night, for example, when rates will be cheaper, or, for commercial customers, they can turn down the air conditioning by two degrees during times of peak demand. These things help to maintain generation margins for improved reliability and reduce the cost of energy.

“Demand response allows us to actually control our demand so it matches our power supply and the availability of power,” says Fletcher. “I’m not sure how we present this to customers yet, but we’re working with our marketing advantage.”

Providing different rates in response to demand is not a new idea—utilities in Maine introduced the practice nearly thirty years ago—but, this new technology makes it practical for the first time in a widespread way.

“An example of the immediate effect of this sort of load control,” says Fletcher, “ would be to send a signal to a grocery store that would turn down lights and turn down the A/C, so we can regulate power when there’s a shortage of power in the grid.”

“A thermostat is a great example,” says Jones. “If you turn the temperature down two degrees you won’t notice, but if you can turn down 10,000 thermostats at once…”

Fletcher says Wi-Fi was his best choice because in essence, it’s always on, and, in an outage, this can be a lifesaver.

“Many utilities are looking at broadband over power line, but we are looking at Wi-Fi because it gets through when the wires are down. Last winter, Seattle had some bad storms and outages. People up there had generators that they plugged into the wall, some streetlights started coming on. The generators were backfeeding into the grid. When that occurs, then our linemen can be killed when they go to work on it. With the Wi-Fi system, we can detect that those things are on, then open the meter, so that it doesn’t pose a threat.”

A different animal

Burbank is not the first city to see its utilities employ wireless meter reading as a way to fund a Wi-Fi build-out. The AllCoNet project in Cumberland, Maryland, is doing this with water, as are other municipalities. However, the SmartSynch Wi-Fi system is drastically different in terms of its functionality and capabilities.

 “We looked at Corpus Christi [Texas] for water,” says Fletcher. “It is very different from what we’re doing. Water is important, but electric power is where the money is. The problem with water is that it moves at a regular rate if you can store it. Electricity you always have to have more supply than load. You can never have load exceed supply. It’s the dynamic nature of electricity, and use has to be instantaneous.”

“Other wireless meter reading systems have been in place for water,” says Jones. “You have a small little radio that pumps information back to the node, so it uses a Wi-Fi network, but it is not a Wi-Fi-enabled meter. SmartSynch is the first Wi-Fi-enabled meter talking on the network, just like a laptop, directly back to the node. It has an IP address on the network with two-way communications, so you can tap in and send stuff up to Fred with the same sort of mechanism that you would send on an IP network. This is a major distinction between the networks deployed in the past and ours. This is about doing it on an electric grid and with a meter that provides two-way communication and a big fat pipe to what’s going on at the customers’ premises.”

A solid business case

“This is a different deployment than those that are out there,” says Jones. “How do you deploy the muni Wi-Fi network citywide? That’s the standard that has to be met all over the country. Fred has recognized that it’s not important to get citywide coverage; what’s important is to cover his customers, the biggest first. So, instead of trying to cover the whole city, he can look at where his meters are and where his fiber optics are, and try to communicate between those two things. He’s doing the deployment surgically.

“The network grows organically and economically, so the business case continues to support the infrastructure all along the way. As he does that, the other applications can be supported because that same network is out there allowing those things to take place, but are paid for by this initial application.”

Ultimately, Fletcher hopes to provide public Wi-Fi access to the whole city.

“One of the driving forces is having a Wi-Fi network that can be used by the public. We’re troubled by the number of times that has failed in the marketplace. We’re approaching this from a utility standpoint. If we get a good, solid network done from an electric utility basis, then we can work from streetlights to meters and put a solid system in that will take care of the utility needs, and do it with a business case that is saving us money, and then we’ll evaluate how it might be used by public. We’re not getting the cart ahead of the horse. We’re not giving it to the public without having a way to pay for it. We’ll get the system and the money lined up first.”

 Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-FiPlanet.

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