Nothing new under the sun

Compos Mentis

This column is to create a forum for ideas, passions and perspectives on our industry that are controversial, provocative and energising. The views expressed here may be unpopular, politically incorrect, heretical or simply humorous. The views expressed may be ideas that all of us have had but didn’t care (or dare) to articulate. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone, but are probably shared by many who have yet to say so.

Have you have attended a utility industry conference in the past two years? If so, did you speak with any of the electric AMI vendors there? Did they mention the recent addition of a HAN (Home Area Network) interface to their AMI products? If not, perhaps you weren’t listening carefully enough.

The North American AMI market has re-set its expectations for what features must be present in the “smart meter” vision of 2008. The term AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) has historically connoted an automatic meter reading system with fixed, not mobile, data retrieval infrastructure. The definition is now broadening, as leading vendors add features. Today’s new AMI system will typically be full two-way, with addressable utility-to-meter communications. The system will be capable of gathering hourly interval data from every meter. It will have some form of tamper detection and outage reporting capabilities. But wait, there is more.

The three large investor owned utilities in California have now converged on requirements for the 10-20 million AMI endpoints they will be installing in the next decade. Utilities or regulators in other states, including Texas, have mimicked these expectations. In addition to the above features, these endpoints will also have at least two other capabilities, both once viewed as fanciful: an integral remote disconnect/ reconnect relay capable of remotely suspending service and later restoring service, and two way communications capability (HAN interface) into the customer’s home to support display of energy information and to allow the customer to automate his electric energy consumption during peak periods. Let’s discuss the latter.

Experiments demonstrate that the customer will respond to peak sensitive “time-of-use” (TOU) rates or to dynamic critical peak pricing (CPP). The data show that the customer will respond even more substantially if he has information and the “tools” to automate that response. The HAN interface exists to provide the customer with those abilities. Will it? Or will this be part of a noble idea and a grand plan that, viewed in retrospect, never quite worked out the way we’d hoped it would? Is home automation the key to a brighter energy future? Or are we simply treading a path we’ve already been down?

In the late-1980s more than 20 major utilities came together, joined by the Electric Power Research Institute, Edison Electric Institute, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and National Association of Home Builders, to support the Smart House Limited Partnership (SHLP). This group was joined by suppliers of appliances, HVAC equipment, lighting and services. The SHLP vision was for a hard-wired system, and depended on a complex and proprietary cabling system for power, communications and control. This preordained the approach to be suitable only for new construction, not retrofit to existing homes. In the early-1990s a highly automated SHLP show house in Stone Mountain, Georgia was shown to the public. It performed all of the functions sought for the HAN equipped house of today, including automated response to TOU and CPP rates. But the automation used in Stone Mountain was not even what was being developed by SHLP because SHLP, for all its efforts, never produced even a working prototype system. After years of effort and millions of dollars, the SHLP partnership finally dissolved in the mid-1990s.

Separately, starting in 1984 and evolving into the mid-1990s, a new standard for home automation emerged. It was called the Consumer Electronic Bus (CEBus). Many major firms collaborated in its development under the auspices of the Electronic Industries Association (EIA), and hailed its pivotal role in the bright future for home automation. Though various media were to be supported, the available implementations used power line communication. This promised to avoid the reliance on hardwiring that characterised the SHLP effort. Unfortunately, CEBus PL technology wasn’t enough to create a meaningful market for home automation with energy management.

That was then. This is now. Apart from hobbyist activities, the market for energy home automation barely exists. Most homeowners are aware of timers, setback thermostats, and delayed-start dishwashers, but that is about it. It is assumed that residential peak sensitive rates will play a crucial role in our energy future, and that premises automation will help make that happen. Are these assumptions valid? Today, we look to the radio technology ZigBee and to the power line communications technology HomePlug as the backbone for communications into the residential customer’s premises.

We have the technology. But we must look back and ask the harder questions. Is technology the trigger to make it happen? Or is it something else? We have had the technology for years. What will it take this time to make it all happen? What will it take to create a realistic and meaningful market penetration of energy home automation? I don’t have the answer. I do know it won’t be fast, simple or easy. We must be smarter this time, and we must try.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-14 NIV)

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