07.29.2015Enterprise Tech

The Future of Smart Grid Technology

With a total addressable market of 147 million electric meters and 330 million water and gas meters in service in the U.S. today, the opportunity for intelligent solutions and services in the utilities market is massive. This week, Verizon announced its premiere energy as-a-service product offering, Grid Wide Utility Solutions, an internet of things enabled solution for electric utilities. I sat down with Jay Olearain, director of business development, energy and utilities, Verizon, to discuss why the time is right for smart energy technology.

Where does the electric utilities industry stand in terms of new technology adoption?

Jay Olearain: Utilities have been slow to adopt newer grid modernization technologies due to the fact that they are riding out earlier investments and minimizing expenses. That is one of the biggest challenges in the utilities space today. They have to go to the public utilities commission every time they need rate cases for new technology approved. Because of this, utilities tend to depreciate technology for 10 to 15 years before there is any kind of refresh. That also adds some barriers for technology companies that support that market because utilities need solutions that will last more than a decade.  

That makes complete sense. I can't imagine having the same computer that I bought 15 years ago. Why are we seeing a shift now?

Jay Olearain: What is really cool — and disruptive — about our Grid Wide technology is that we are creating this as an as-a-service model. We are offering a product that doesn't necessarily require a large capital budget and utilities can consume these services as they need them. By purchasing this as-a-service model, utilities don't have to go swap out the entire meter population; they can start to solve the problem areas right now on a per-month, per-meter cost basis.  

Besides capital spend, why should utilities want to implement smart meter technology?

Jay Olearain: The intelligence of the grid performance is incredibly important for utilities. Think about Verizon Wireless. Imagine if we had no idea how our network was performing and took it solely on the call volumes to our customer support center — that's exactly how some of these utilities are running their grids, today. They have absolutely no visibility into the performance of their services. They only know their grid is down because their phones are ringing.  

I always thought utilities could see every meter on some giant computer map at headquarters.

Jay Olearain: The reality is that the duration of many electric outages is spent trying to determine where that outage is. In some cases, they don't even know that there is an outage until people start to call in. Even then, they may not take them seriously until a certain number of people — in the same geographic location — call in to report the problem. 

How does a smart meter solution help solve this problem?

Jay Olearain: When a power outage occurs, the smart meter communication card, using the stored energy on the circuit board and our cellular LTE technology,  calls home and reports the outage to our Grid Wide platform. The utilities can then pinpoint each outage at an exact address, and they can see if it's one person that’s affected or if it's a widespread outage. And they know exactly where to send crews to restore power. Another Grid Wide feature that can help to save time and money is the ability to remotely disconnect and connect service. For example, utilities no longer have to send out a truck and worker to manually switch off the electricity at a house or apartment if someone is moving. With Grid Wide, they can do this remotely, through the hosted application, across the LTE network, right to the meter — it takes about 10 seconds to kill the service and eliminates two truck rolls.  

What are some of the other benefits of Grid Wide?

Jay Olearain: Grid Wide is more than a service for meter reading; it can turn each utility-owned smart meter into a power-quality sensor that allows utilities to monitor the voltage level at the meter. Embedded sensors help them understand the quality of the electricity that they are delivering to their customers. By monitoring voltage, they can deduce if a transformer is running too hot and needs to be fixed. Or they might have too many users on that line and have to add other elements to optimize the grid. Right now, many utilities don't have insights into how the grid is performing at the endpoint. Grid Wide gives them that ability.  

Can you talk about the technology that makes Grid Wide work?

Jay Olearain: There's the utility’s meter itself, which includes a smart meter communication card with embedded cellular technology and other radio technology that allow for secure, two-way communication to the computing environment (in this case Verizon Cloud). Within that environment, we have an advanced meter infrastructure system, which speaks the same proprietary protocol language as the meter and is used to manage the software and policies.  

Do the utilities have to do any additional legwork to install the system?

Jay Olearain: The Grid Wide platform is already pre-built in a hosted environment.  We are also working with smart meter manufacturers to certify meters so utilities can be confident that when they install their certified smart meters, the meters will work on our LTE network and the Grid Wide solution.  

What does the short- and long-term future of Grid Wide look like?

Jay Olearain: We have started with one particular family of electric meters, GE, but we will be certifying other meters down the road. We have a very detailed road map of enhancements to support other electric, gas and water meter manufacturers that plan to announce in the next few months.

Visit the Grid Wide utility solutions center to learn more about how smart grid technologies can benefit your energy and utilities business.  To contact Jay Olearain, email Marie McGehee at marie.mcgehee@verizon.com.