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Smart Energy International spoke with Cory Estlund, Manager of Grid Solutions and AMI Operations for PacifiCorp about their smart meter rollout, meter temperature monitoring and plans for the future.

PacifiCorp implemented smart meter technology across their Oregon and California service territories in January of 2018 and are already seeing the benefits of this technology for their customers.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 4-2019. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

The implementation has greatly improved PacifiCorp’s insight into customer energy usage.

“One of the pieces of data that we now have access to, namely meter temperature, is a great safety tool that enables us to keep an eye on potential safety issues on our customer’s property,” says Cory Estlund, manager, field support.

“In our service territory, the meter base which attaches to the home is the customer’s property. And in most cases, these were installed when the house was built – in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s – and no one has thought about them since.

Demand for electricity has changed over that time, but the infrastructure in many homes has not kept up with that demand. The ability to monitor temperature at the meter has given us insight into potentially catastrophic meter-based failures.”

As smart meter rollouts have progressed around the world, utilities have spent many, many manhours identifying various ways to further utilise all of the available data that smart meters provide.

Estlund reports that it was “a pretty obvious call” to utilise temperature monitoring information, allowing PacifiCorp to be proactive and notify customers of potentially very serious issues.

“We’ve deployed 650,000 smart meters. While we haven’t found a significant number of overloaded services, every one of them is a customer’s home. Every customer is important to us. Having that information and being able to proactively notify a customer of a potentially serious safety hazard was a very obvious use case for us.

“In our coastal service territory, we have also found that customers have painted over corroded metal. And while it looks nice and shiny, in reality it’s in a severely deteriorated state and on the brink of failure.

“The insight we have gained from temperature monitoring has allowed us to proactively prevent equipment failure and outages. Our proactive efforts allow customers to plan and schedule repairs to their service verses being in an urgent situation without power and finding an electrician to make repairs immediately.” Customer communication formed a central part of the rollout strategy. A multi-layered approach helps make customers aware of the changes and facilitates easier access to premises for the utility crew. It also provides information around some of the benefits of the smart meter. The team at PacifiCorp developed a four-step customer communication process:

1. Two months prior to the installation the customer receives a postcard letting them know installations will be in their area.

2. A few weeks later they receive a more detailed letter which provides additional detail on the installation process, along with some of the benefits of the smart meter.

3. The week prior to installation the customer gets a phone call that their installation is scheduled for next week.

4. On the day of installation, a door hanger that contains additional information is left at the home.

5. Finally, after the installation is complete, and when the smart meter is communicating on the network, a follow up postcard is sent that directs customers to go to their online profile and explore the usage and other information that they access via their Pacific Power account.

When a meter exceeds a set temperature (85 degrees Celsius), it sends an alert to one of a team of analysts where it is reviewed to make sure that the alert conditions are valid. For instance, the team determines if the meter has already been inspected or identified in the past.

The multi-faceted vetting process means the team considers the load on the meter, temperatures at similar locations and services, along with GIS and weather information, among other parameters.

“In some parts of our service territory, it gets quite warm in the summer. And if the meter itself is in a certain place, and in the sun for a significant part of the day, this is reflected in the temperature of the meter.

But it’s not an imminent safety issue. We investigate the data and determine if a site visit is required, dispatching field personnel as necessary.”

The past 18 months have been a steep learning curve for the PacifiCorp team.

“We’ve learned a lot, gathered a fair number of use cases and refined the kind of data criteria we need to look at. Our processes have certainly matured in that year and a half as well,” Estlund says.

“In the beginning of the rollout, as soon as we got an alarm, we dispatched a truck.

We didn’t vett any data, we didn’t look at other supporting information. Working with our field personnel and some other utilities, we quickly developed a more detailed vetting process.

“We’re looking at developing some seasonal temperature thresholds. Like every other business, we really want our teams to be looking at the right data. If we can use analytics to filter and refine our focus, then that’s a good thing.” Estlund is excited about the other benefits they are deriving from the smart meters.

“With smart meters, we were able to give our customers hourly usage data and our residential customers can see their consumption in a far more granular way.

When customers have questions about their bill, we can really go into a fair amount of detail, although obviously we can’t tell what devices they’re using. We can tell them on which day and at what time they were using power. This gives customers far more insight into and real control over their power bills.” Proactive outage notification is another key benefit to both PacifiCorp and its customers. “Previously we had to rely on customers calling in to report an outage.

Now, with smart meters, all of our meters can tell us when the power is out – and when power is restored. This helps us understand the size and scope of power outages far more quickly. And we’re able to dispatch crews to the right areas faster, improving our outage response times.

“These are just two of the really big wins for our customers.”

From an internal perspective, Estlund says the technology has changed perceptions too. “We thought of this as a meter replacement project and a technology upgrade. But didn’t fully appreciate that it really touched every part of our business – from the customer contact centres, because they have a lot more information available; to our communications department, because they have more insight into customer behaviour. Every part of our business has been touched by this project. We are still appreciating all of those changes today.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Estlund reveals that customer values in different communities are an essential consideration when planning any smart meter rollout. Each value set will determine the best approach to take when informing and sharing information on a smart meter implementation.

Engaging with community leaders and understanding their perspectives, plus explaining utility drivers, is vital to keeping a project on track and on time.

Consumer education from the utility is necessary to balance the amount of information coming from internet sources which are not necessarily trustworthy or scientifically factual.

Addressing concerns around privacy, how much information is available through the smart meter and just how detailed the insights are is important in all communities at all times.

So, what’s next for the team?

“With the amount of data that we have now, we are looking at improving outage response, and mitigating outages by gaining more insight into transformer health.

“We want to work with our customers – business in particular – to determine how we can help them save money on their energy bills. Primarily, we are a rural utility, and serve many small businesses. For them every dollar they can save on their power bill allows them to hire another employee, make more profit and work more efficiently.

This is a big incentive for us – to engage with our customers and help them find ways to save.” SEI