Why BPL?


Moreover, TXU intends to deploy BPL primarily for its utility applications, particularly AMR. The combination of broadband Internet access and other consumer services along with utility applications help make BPL an attractive technology, as either a stand-alone or hybrid network solution. It is no secret that the utility industry is undergoing a transformation. Major mergers between Duke Energy and Cinergy as well as Constellation Energy and Florida Power and Light are signs of a larger trend to consolidate and become more efficient and reliable. BPL is a technology that meets the challenges of today’s changing times. BPL improves utility efficiency by enabling utilities to integrate disparate communications systems through IP (Internet protocol). It also supports advanced metering, which gives utilities two-way, real-time connectivity to their
customers, enabling remote connect and disconnect of utility services, verification for load management, and realtime pricing. All these applications go directly to the bottom line, at a time when generation costs are skyrocketing. BPL improves reliability and safety by transforming the network into an intelligent grid. Because BPL uses the power lines as the communications medium, it can theoretically anticipate faults on the grid before they happen. This capability represents a path for a fundamental shift away from schedule-based maintenance and towards predictive monitoring of utility infrastructure. BPL is already being used for outage detection, telling utilities instantly when and where an outage has occurred. Finally, BPL gives utilities added flexibility for video surveillance applications that protect critical infrastructure. A variety of utilities have already found success in using BPL for internal applications. Consolidated Edison, for example, is using BPL for advanced SCADA. Because ConEd serves a primarily urban environment, the  
company has unique challenges, and the issues that they are evaluating the potential for BPL to address include:

• Improved fault location and repair of secondary cable,
splices and joints.
• Detecting ‘alive on back feed’, a condition which causes
work delays associated with locating a defective
• Alarms
– Safety
– Stray voltage
– Street lights
– Water levels for pumps.
• Other benefits
– Remote oil-minder monitoring to improve environmental
– Remote control of network protectors
– Vault inspections
– Improve reliability (reduced penalties and recovery costs).

Centerpoint Energy is another utility that has tested BPL for utility applications, and for smart appliances as well. In addition to AMR, Centerpoint used BPL for applications such as remote connect/disconnect, demand side management, and pole top switching. As part of these tests at its technology centre, it used BPL for smart thermostats, air quality monitors and lighting control. Working with IBM and IdaComm (a BPL company), Centerpoint also created a ‘kitchen of the future’ using BPL to operate smart ovens/ranges that can both refrigerate and cook food. For different utilities, BPL will serve different roles. Some, like ConEd, are focusing on applications on the grid; others like Centerpoint are focusing on home or business applications. As a result, BPL means different things for different utilities, and quantifying its value will vary considerably, depending on the utility that is deploying it. Still, a 2004 UTC Research BPL Business Case Study estimated that a large investor-owned utility could save $30 million annually if it fully implemented BPL for a range of utility applications.

BPL Communications


Of all the utility applications, metering represents the lowhanging fruit for BPL. Utilities have tested AMR using retrofit solutions, and there are a few companies that produce meters that are already IP-enabled. Utilities are also using BPL as a backhaul solution for AMR, thereby eliminating the need for drive-by reads
and allowing multiple reads every minute. Being able to conduct multiple reads allows utilities to gain a better understanding of customer consumption of electric services. So, the benefits from AMR and using BPL to improve its capabilities go far beyond the mere cost savings of manual meter reading. BPL could radically change the way that utilities do business. Even though AMR is one of the easier applications for BPL, there is still more work that needs to be done before it is likely to be deployed on a wide scale. Utilities want a meter that is designed for BPL, with a BPL chip under the glass.

Right now there are few companies that are producing such a meter as a prototype. Part of the challenge for BPL is convincing meter manufacturers to design and build a true BPL meter. Not only does that require significant investment from the manufacturer, but it may also entail stranded investment to the extent that it has already developed other types of meters that it wants to market instead. As a result, larger meter manufacturers have kept their distance from BPL, apparently waiting to see if utilities are actually committed to the technology. Until a true BPL meter is commercially developed on a significant scale, utilities must work with what is readily at hand. Most utilities that actually have AMR systems already can integrate BPL with existing systems. This avoids the costs of drive-by reads and represents a cost-effective and interim alternative solution. AMR generally is considered   lowbandwidth application for BPL, so why devote a lot of capacity when it really isn’t needed? In the near term, this is how most utilities are likely to use AMR in conjunction with BPL. It may also serve as a migration path towards the ultimate development and deployment of a true BPL meter.


One of the key drivers for BPL metering is public policy. Recall in the early days of utility restructuring that regulatory policies promoted the development of advanced metering. In the wake of the California energy crisis, restructuring has been put on hold in many states. Now the regulatory watchword for utilities is reliability. The new Energy Policy Act gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authority over reliability; and the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) is implementing new standards for electric service reliability as well. To the extent that BPL can support applications that promote reliability, it could be a technology white knight for many drawing board concepts that lacked a communications transport system to make them work – concepts such as intelligent electronic devices inside conduit that can monitor conditions and can be controlled and adjusted remotely. BPL brings these concepts to life at a time when policymakers are supporting electric service reliability.


A case in point is Texas. Last year, the Texas legislature passed SB-5 which included provisions that clarified the way in which utilities may offer BPL. One of the key provisions in the law allows utilities to recover both the capital expenses associated with BPL that are “used and useful in providing electric utility service”, as well as operational expenses that are “reasonable and necessary.” This provision directly led to the announcement by TXU to deploy BPL to two million homes and businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. TXU
is deploying BPL for AMR purposes primarily, and is letting the BPL provider act as the retail provider of commercial services, such as broadband Internet access services. Other utilities in Texas are reportedly taking a similar approach, based on utility applications. The Texas legislation could serve as a model for other states to follow; and already several state public utility commissions (PUCs) including California, Louisiana and New York, have launched proceedings on BPL to provide regulatory clarity and to eliminate regulatory
barriers to BPL deployment.


There is a saying that those who live in crystal balls eat glass, so it is always dangerous to predict the future, particularly with new technologies like BPL. Nonetheless, even Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell has said that BPL has a bright future. The question seems not if BPL will happen, but when and to what extent. Sceptics say that BPL is a niche technology that may only be able to compete in rural and under-served areas where cable modem and DSL are not currently available, or where broadband is otherwise prohibitively expensive. Even if this view comes to pass, there are still significant parts of the country that currently do not have access to broadband, or pay through the nose to get it. As such, assuming the worst case, there is still an attractive commercial opportunity for BPL. But even where cable and modem are available, the adoption rate for broadband is relatively low – the national average is about 15 percent. It is widely believed that consumers are holding out for broadband that costs $30/ month. Not surprisingly, in many areas cable modem and DSL providers have dropped their prices to attract subscribers; but often these offers involve long-term contracts or teaser rates.


The reality is that BPL is being offered commercially today in many areas for less than $30/month without teaser rates or long-term contracts; and customer satisfaction and take rates have been very high. Moreover, while cable modem and DSL can only offer the ‘triple play’ of voice, video, and broadband Internet access, BPL can also offer utility applications. Utilities are still developing business models based upon the utility applications because they could represent such a significant part of the overall business case. The ultimate value of BPL for utilities will vary, but the utility applications will only further improve its ability to compete with cable and DSL on price. Of the utility applications for BPL, metering is just the beginning, but it seems to be the beginning of a very bright future for utilities and the customers they serve. The UPLC remains optimistic about the future for BPL, and believes that we are seeing a tipping point in the industry. BPL may be late to the broadband party, but it has definitely arrived at the right time for the utility industry, which must become more efficient and reliable to counter increasing generation costs and ageing infrastructure.