JUICE: Fruits & Nuts

By Published On: August 22, 2008

While a tech reporter in the Silicon Valley in the late 80s, I was employed by some stuffy Bostonites. Boston was the headquarters for the national publication. I told my employers that the future of corporate computing was not their favorite “mainframe” computers, but distributed computing based on server farms. Soon-after I was sacked. The Bostonians thought we Californians were “fruits and nuts.” They loved the stories about our quirkiness, but couldn’t see that Left Coast thinking–perhaps in between surfing or a rave–could come up with engineering that benefits business. One thing I also reported on then was how difficult communications were between computers. Each company had its own proprietary software. They figured that once you bought one, you’d be stuck with the brand. Kinda like, once you learned how to drive a Ford, if you bought a Honda, you’d have to learn to drive all over again. The proprietary tech problem is showing up in at the California Public Utilities Commission’s and energy utilities’ plans for “smart meters.” On top of that, the opportunity to have these pricey meters track both energy and water use is missing in action. After all, energy and water are intertwined–and using one meter for two services allows for economic dovetailing. Pumping water around the state is the biggest energy use in California. Heating and cleaning it for consumers takes more power. Smart meters are replacing analog ones on consumer’s buildings. They signal the main office to read your power consumption, and are expected to be used as time-of-use meters to let consumers know when energy prices are high or lower. They are also expected to be used to cycle down air conditioners and other appliances when the grid gets stressed and blackout alerts are sent. Together, California investor-owned utilities are expected to spend more than $4 billion on the new meters. The tech problem is that Pacific Gas & Electric is buying meters from a company that is different from the one that Southern California Edison’s buying from. Edison’s buying from the same one San Diego Gas & Electric’s buying from. Yet, the meters don’t “talk” to each other. Thus, information is gathered and stored in different languages and cannot be shared for the good of the state as a whole. A translator later down the road will certainly cost another fortune. Take that and add in the state’s drought. Regulators are also requiring water utilities to install smart meters (or meters of any kind as some areas consume water without regard for the amount used). “I think [piggybacking on energy utility meters] is going to happen as they reach critical mass on their advanced meters,” noted Jack Hawks, California Water Association executive director. He contends that advanced metering for all utilities shouldn’t be approached piecemeal by regulators, but should have a cohesive state hearing set up. The CPUC did not respond to repeated requests for data and comment on either energy or water meter regulation. Meter vendors both originally claimed their technology is open–using Internet Protocol. When pressed, both Itron (SDG&E; Edison) and Silver Spring (PG&E) said their technology doesn’t cross over. Utilities and vendors appear to be relying on the California Independent System Operator to take meter data and make it transparent–yet another step and another expensive step in the process. “Were working together to establish the back end,” said Paul De Martini, Edison director of advanced metering. It’s like a Mac and a PC–they both can do spreadsheets but they don’t agree on the underlying technology. The two different platforms for smart meters send their spreadsheets to a third party to kludge together to make sense. Why do they need to “talk” to each other? Demand-side management is a good start, both for energy and water use. California has several contracts with utilities that put together customers who can drop load on call, or if their meter is programmed, shed power use on demand. If those companies had transparent meters, they could save time during crucial near-blackout scenarios. The other reason is that data interconnection makes it easier for regulators to see where ratepayers’ $4-$6 billion is going. Thus, the state needs open architecture and transparent data. I agree with the Bostonians every once in awhile. We can be fruits and nuts. But, we also need to capitalize on our high tech stature. It may well be worth billions of dollars to experiment and have those Blue Blood East Coasters follow along.

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