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Morganton launching Smart Grid Pilot for utilities

10/6/2014 - Published: September 30, 2014

The City of Morganton is launching a Smart Grid Pilot to test and evaluate using smart meter technology with the City's electric and water utility systems. Smart meters allow a utility company to monitor and communicate with a meter from headquarters and better manage the system, respond to problems, and possibly prevent problems before they happen.

During its September meeting, the Morganton City Council approved a contract with Nexgrid to launch the City's Smart Grid Pilot. The City plans to install 108 smart devices consisting of 93 electric meters, five water meters, five load control devices, and five thermostats. The City will also install the infrastructure required to integrate the smart meter data into the City's billing software. The Smart Grid Pilot project will cost $82,300.

Electric Department Director Brooks Kirby is heavily involved in the pilot, and he said that there could be tremendous benefits for customers and the City if the pilot is successful and the City implements smart meters city-wide.

''Smart meters and smart devices could help the City save money and help customers save money in many, many ways,'' Kirby said. ''A smart grid allows for real-time monitoring of the meters on our utility systems. We'll be able to see issues when they happen and where they happen; we'll be able to see some issues before they happen; and we'll be able to respond to issues faster after they happen.''

The smart meters will send information to City Hall every 15 minutes and notify City staff of any issues in the system in real time. For example, when a smart electric meter loses power, the City Electric Department will receive a notification from that meter and staff will be able to review the status of all meters on a digital map, which will be accessible via a desktop, laptop, tablet or smart phone. Meters that are functioning normally will show up on the map as green dots, meters that have some issue or are functioning abnormally will show up as yellow dots, and meters that are offline will show as red dots.

If there is a major storm or a mechanical problem that causes a power outage, the Electric Department staff will be able look at the map and see every meter that has lost power and coordinate a faster response.

''Our typical response and repair time is between 30 minutes and two hours depending on the problem,'' Kirby said. ''But with smart meters, we'll know which meters are out and where they're out before we start rolling trucks. That should definitely reduce our response time.''

Smart meters could also help prevent some problems. Kirby said the smart grid software will alert City staff to unusual activity on the meters. If the voltage on an electric meter is fluctuating, City staff will be notified. If water usage increases more than normal, City staff will be notified. Water Resources Director Brad Boris said that smart water meters could be a useful water loss prevention tool and help provide better customer service.

''The main benefit for us would be the ability to detect water leaks early on,'' Boris said. ''As it stands now, someone could have a water leak that runs for an entire month before it's a noticed, and not only have we wasted a lot of water, but that customer is going to have to pay a costly water bill.

''With a smart water meter, we'll be able to detect the leak early, which will save water, save money, and help mitigate property damaged caused by an undetected water leak.''

The technology will also help customer and Water Department staff analyze their water consumption and resolve questions about bills.

''If a customer calls and has questions about a higher than normal water bill, we will be able to pull up their usage history and tell them exactly when their water usage increased, the time and the day,'' Boris said. ''Maybe a customer washed their car and didn't turn the hose off all the way. Maybe their toilet has a slow leak. We won't be able to tell them why they are using more water than normal, but we will be able to tell them when, and maybe that will help customers locate the problem.''

Smart meters will also allow the City to turn service on and off from headquarters without having to send a person and a truck to the meter. Being able to remotely connect and disconnect service will save the City time and money and it will reduce the time that customers have to wait to have their service turned on.

In addition to the smart meters, a few customers will test smart thermostats that will allow them to monitor their own power usage via a smart phone and control how they use power. These customers will be able to receive notifications about their power usage and program their central air and hot water heaters for optimum efficiency.

''If no one is home during the day, then why does your hot water heater need to be on using electricity?'' Kirby said. ''With a smart thermostat, you could program your hot water heater to turn off when you leave for work, and turn on 30 minutes or so before you come home; the same with your central air, and that could save customers money.''

The City Council and staff have been discussing smart meter technology for about a year. City Manager Sally Sandy assembled a team of department directors to study and evaluate the concept before spending any funds.

Assistant City Manager Scott Hildebran heads the team comprised of Finance Director Karen Duncan, Information Resource Management Systems Director Greg Branch, Water Resources Director Brad Boris, and Kirby. The team reviewed the information and examined the impact such a system would have on each department. After months of research, the team made the recommendation to proceed cautiously by implementing a low-cost pilot project.

The City worked with ElectriCities staff who have a wealth of knowledge on smart meters and smart grids to locate suitable vendors for the project and get the best prices on equipment.

The Smart Grid Pilot will launch with mostly residential customers living on Rand Street to W. Fleming Drive, along W. Fleming to Burkemont Avenue, and along Burkemont to W. Union Street, and the smart grid monitoring will only apply to the pilot group. Kirby said this area was selected because of the diversity of electric meters, different type of residences, varying terrain, and proximity to City Hall.

Kirby said the City should have all the pilot smart meters installed by the first of December, and staff will evaluate the program for a couple months. Staff plans to report the results of the pilot to the City Council during the Council's annual workshop in February.

About Nexgrid

Nexgrid, LLC is a US based company that provides an end-to-end solution for wireless smart grid and advanced metering.  Nexgrid's products provide utility companies and consumers the ability to manage and monitor their smart grid and smart home networks.  Nexgrid's solutions  utilize high speed, 100% standards-based communications providing real-time data that enables energy management and utility operations.  In addition to advanced metering of electric, water and gas, Nexgrid manufactures load control devices, capacitor bank controllers, thermostats and street light control hardware.  Lastly, their ecoOne enterprise software provides meter data, network, load control, street light, outage and customer portal management all in one easy to use platform.

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