Smart meter deployments are the most common smart grid (or smart utility) activity. Utilities are also adding sensors into their networks to better understand operating conditions.

Smart Meters and Utilities

Ken Boyce and Bill Colavecchio | UL


What are the key drivers of smart meter (and in the future smart utility) growth?

Smart meter and smart grid growth are being driven by a number of factors, including societal advances in the form of more renewable energy sources, more efficient use of generated electricity and possibly deferment of new power plants. Smart meters enhance energy optimization strategies on every scale, from consumer decisions to grid planning. Growth is being driven by these utility and consumer benefits. Smart technologies enable two-way communication between utilities and consumers through smart devices, which affords benefits to both. Utilities benefit from much more sophisticated views and control of the grid, while consumers are empowered with information to use energy in ways that best suit their priorities.


How will/do smart meters have an impact on utilities?

By deploying smart meters, utilities can reduce their O&M costs by gathering better data about situations including outages, abnormal use and non-technical losses. Utilities are then able to offer their customers new services based on their customer preferences through programs like demand response, DER (Distributed Energy Resources) management and time of use (TOU) rates.  The wide variances in utility strategies, state regulatory approaches, penetration of renewables and other factors mean that some of these benefits are more suited to the needs of utilities or consumers in different geographies and energy markets.


How will IoT and the connected future have an impact on utilities? Do solar panels and other energy storage devices play a role?

IoT is already having an impact on utilities and their connected customers. As more devices within the home or building become connected, the desire to interact and control the energy consumption or production of those devices increases. Solar panels and energy storage systems will be connected to utility grids using smart inverters, which allow for more visibility on the utility’s part and control on the prosumer’s (i.e. producer/consumer) part. In many areas, utilities will have direct communication to large energy consuming appliances, like HVAC, water heaters and even refrigerators and clothes dryers. Utilities have already been building increasing sensors, communication and processing into the grid, building out an “energy internet,” for some time, but the advances in technology will accelerate that process. Solar power continues to penetrate the grid significantly, and the complementary effect that energy storage brings make the benefits even more appealing.


How will these new, connected energy/electricity utilities “get smarter”?

More sensors provide insights into conditions of grid usage, equipment health and performance, and even important issues like weather conditions. Communication from these grid elements, consumer locations with smart meters, and distributed energy resources all empower a quantum elevation in the information available to understand how the grid is being used. Increasing sophistication in processing and control means that utilities can do more to manage the health of the grid instantaneously and also use more effective predictive modeling. As technological solutions continue to advance, this will be more and more effective and precise. The technological convergence of energy and information technology may offer some very interesting evolutions in how utilities change to meet the complete demands of the public, with different entrants into energy retail.


How will this benefit the utility provider? The consumer?

Smart devices and systems allow utilities better insight into their systems and other devices connected to their systems. This way, utilities can include all the interconnected DER in their operations and planning, and evolve the relationship between utility and consumer from “interconnection” to “integration.” Motivated consumers certainly can use the information to more effectively control their energy usage and costs, although the clarity of those benefits will vary based on prevailing rates, policies, and individual values and comfort with technology.


Are there specific initiatives being addressed in terms of smart utilities?

Smart meter deployments are the most common smart grid (or smart utility) activity. Utilities are also adding sensors into their networks to better understand operating conditions. Utilities in markets with deeper penetration of renewables are integrating smart inverters and energy storage systems.  Electric vehicles are becoming more common; aside from the new demands increased EV charging places onto the grid, EVs also offer interesting opportunities for complementing the grid. Each utility is focused on the initiatives that allow them to better deliver safe, reliable and affordable electricity to their customers.


Are there negative aspects of implementing smart meters or smart utilities in the home or business?

Smart meters, like most new technologies, do come with risks. There have been some incidents of fires involving smart meters, but these can be effectively avoided by using meters that comply with established safety standards which are appropriately installed and maintained. Smart meters have information connectivity, so this brings new challenges. Interoperability is an issue for grid integration, and there is an inherent cybersecurity risk that was not present with electromechanical meters. Also, smart meters are constructed of materials and components that were not used in electromechanical meters, so there is a higher focus on supply chain integrity. The information that is exported from a smart meter has presented concerns for some consumers and advocates about privacy and security.


Are there cybersecurity risks tied to smart meters, grids or utilities?

Yes. All connected devices bring with them a cybersecurity risk, and cybersecurity is one of the highest concerns that utilities are continuing to address. Cybersecurity is always a moving target, so protection will require an effective holistic and ongoing approach.


How can consumers be assured that their smart utilities are safe?

UL offers product safety certification to electricity meter manufacturers. This program evaluates the electrical, fire, material, RF emissions and physical hazards associated with a meter. Meters that are determined to comply with the Standard for Safety for Electricity Meters, UL 2735, are eligible to bear the UL Mark on the product. The UL Mark on a smart meter is a critical indication of independent verification of its safety. Use of UL certified smart meters is a best practice used by many utilities. Consumers can check with their utility with any questions about safety.


How is UL involved with the deployment of smart meters, grids and utilities?

In addition to the product safety certification of smart meters, UL is extremely active in this space. We have been developing safety and performance standards for the new technologies to establish a clear expectation for critical attributes. UL offers testing and certification of these products that makes them eligible to bear the familiar UL Mark. UL also offers a number of testing, inspection and advisory services to both smart technology manufacturers and utilities. We test for interoperability, cybersecurity, performance, accuracy and electromagnetic emissions. We remain committed to using safety science to support a safe and sustainable deployment of these technologies that will truly transform our electric grid.


About Ken Boyce, Principal Engineer Director, Energy & Power Technologies and Corporate Fellow at UL
Ken Boyce is Principal Engineer Director, Energy & Power Technologies at UL LLC. Ken has decades of experience in safety engineering across many sectors.  Most recently he has served as UL’s technical leader for the energy and power sectors, overseeing standards development and technical operations for renewable energy technologies, batteries and energy storage, advanced technology infrastructure, electric vehicle systems, power distribution, factory automation, and related equipment.  Ken is very active in the standards and code development community, and serves as the Chairman of National Electrical Code Panel 1. He represents UL in numerous global energy initiatives such as the IEC Renewable Energy Scheme.  He works closely with US National Laboratories and academic institutions to advance scientific knowledge, including leading a number of significant renewable energy research projects.  Ken holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, is a Registered Professional Engineer in Illinois, and is a Corporate Fellow in the William Henry Merrill Society at UL.


About Bill Colavecchio, General Manager Electric Utility Services at UL

Bill is a 29-year veteran of the testing, inspection and certification industry, and is currently Senior Business Development Manager at UL. In his current role, he leads UL’s electric utility market and overall electrical grid business activities.  He has additionally held various global engineering and general management roles focused on power distribution, renewable energy, chemicals, transaction security and industry affairs.  He began his career as a UL test engineer focused on evaluating the safety of power distribution and industrial control equipment.  He holds a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from Duke University.


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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