PG&E Delivers On Promise Of Smart Meters - InformationWeek

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PG&E Delivers On Promise Of Smart Meters

Pacific Gas & Electric analyzes new information from meters to better cope with times of peak energy usage. One of eight profiles of InformationWeek Elite 100 Business Innovation Award winners.

Pacific Gas & Electric is the first California utility and the largest US utility to install smart meters in its customers' homes, 9.4 million of them, in a program that's been seven years in the making. It now captures four readings an hour from each customer instead of the standard one a month.

PG&E's new analytics effort helps balance peak demand at substations.
PG&E's new analytics effort helps balance peak demand at substations.

The meters, in fact, are capable of taking 12 readings a minute, 720 an hour, but even collecting data every 15 minutes has been enough to set teeth on edge among homeowners in the San Francisco Bay Area. Demonstrators in Marin County, fearing an invasion of their privacy, blocked installation truck.

Smart meters capture how much energy is being consumed at each site and broadcast that data over radio frequency to a PG&E neighborhood area network, which reports to a central datacenter. The meters aren't so smart that they know which types of home devices are consuming energy or how much energy is going to each. What they collect is raw usage data. Even so, PG&E is collecting a lot of information that it's never had before, and that information is changing how it runs its business.

All those smart meters feed 2 TB of data a month into a new Teradata Data Warehouse Appliance 2700. Using the Teradata Utility Analytics software that came with the appliance, PG&E has launched a service, called PG&E Interval Data Analytics, that has begun to break down the walls among groups that generate energy in PG&E plants, those that buy energy off the grid, and those responsible for substation capacity in the distribution system. These formerly isolated activities can be coordinated with the near-real-time usage information pouring in from the smart meters.

[For more InformationWeek Elite 100 coverage and a complete listing of the top 100 companies, click here.]

Peak demand at substations is the bane of the utility business. When the demand arrives, PG&E must have the power available. Each department found that "you can look at the business challenge differently if you can look at that data," says Steve Malnight, VP of customer energy solutions.

Brian Rich, VP of business technology at PG&E, and his team took up the challenge of identifying those customers contributing the most to peak demand. Perhaps it's two heavy industries in a neighborhood. Or maybe demand shoots up in a residential neighborhood as soon as kids get home from school and turn on TVs and game consoles. Either way, PG&E has a long list of energy-conservation and efficiency incentives it can offer contributors to peak demand.

"Shaving peak demand" has been the holy grail of the utility industry for years, but without smart meters and Interval Data Analytics, executives lacked the ability to orchestrate their systems and manage consumer demand with enough precision to make a significant dent in it.

For example, PG&E can infer from the data on a hot day who's using air conditioning, which at one time was the cause of rolling brownouts in California. For a savings, some homeowners in the state now let PG&E install a switch on their air conditioners that dials down AC cycles as a peak approaches and restores them once it has passed, Malnight says.

PG&E also reports more usage data directly to consumers on the My Energy portion of its website. Customers must register to view the data, which includes a graph of each month's energy consumption, with a line comparing similar homes and one comparing efficient homes.

PG&E has added to its My Energy page a button that lets consumers download the data to their own spreadsheets with a single click. By 2015, customers will be able to send that data to a third party, such as Opower, which makes a conservation app.

Rich says the mere fact that this "mountain of data" suddenly became available to utility divisions posed a challenge. "Everyone who never had it before needed it to run their part of the business," he says.

Given the backdrop of those demonstrators in Marin County, Rich's team has figured out how to replicate the data, sort it, and make it available for analytics without identifiers in order to protect the privacy of PG&E customers.

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Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive ... View Full Bio

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