Telecom Wants Piece of CA Grid

By Published On: September 10, 2010

Move over energy utilities. Telephone companies want to get into the business of providing household energy information services now that “smart meters” are in place. In filings with the California Public Utilities Commission, AT&T, and the wireless association--CTIA--outlined their plans to obtain data related to smart meters and use it to provide utility customers with energy management services directly. The vision, quips Ed Legge, spokesperson for the Edison Electric Institute, is to be able to run your clothes dryer from your smart phone. The telecommunications industry told the CPUC there is no need to create a separate utility communications system to give customers price information and energy usage control. The existing telephone and wireless communications system already provides ubiquitous, reliable, and secure communications capabilities, it claims. Based on these advantages, AT&T attorney David Discher wrote the CPUC last month that energy utilities “should not be permitted to introduce [smart meter] dashboards, analytical tools, etc., until they can demonstrate that third parties have equivalent access to backhauled data on a non-discriminatory basis.” The commission should provide the telecommunications industry what Discher called “a realistic opportunity to develop energy management products competing with utility offers.” It also should specify, according to the attorney, that energy utility control over hardware and information connected to the emerging smart grid ends at the meter. This would enable competition in developing products and services on the consumer side of the meter. Telecommunications industry interest in the home energy information management field has been discussed nationally, not just in California, according to Brian Seal, Electric Power Research Institute senior project manager. Cable and satellite television companies also are eyeing the potential market. “Any communications company sees it as a revenue stream,” explained Seal. If the CPUC agrees, it would open up the household energy management service field to competition in which phone companies, internet service providers, and other companies could provide energy utility customers with information about real time energy prices and current energy usage, as well as offer the ability to control energy using devices online, via telephone, or potentially on television screens. The telecommunications industry interest comes as California utilities are well along the way in installing smart meters under their combined $5 billion programs and as the CPUC turns to other aspects of converting the state’s power transmission and distribution system into a “smart grid.” The commission is considering the related issues in its “Smart Grid Technology” proceeding, which includes defining “smart grid.” State regulators are considering how to handle information created by the new generation of meters and home area networks to give consumers the ability to monitor and control their energy use in response to power prices. Based on pricing information, consumers are expected to use less energy during times of high demand when prices also rise. Some policymakers believe that moderating consumer usage through meter feedback can reduce the need to build expensive and polluting power plants. The potential communications configurations for consumer energy information systems are numerous, according to experts. For instance, information could travel back and forth between a central household control panel through the utility smart meter and communications system. Then it could be turned over to telecommunications companies to use for value added energy management services. Alternatively, information could flow back and forth between an internal household control panel and energy management service providers over the phone system, bypassing smart meters altogether. Communications over cable television systems is yet another possibility some raise. Within the home, the control panel would be connected to remote switches that turn on or off various energy using devices--from lights to appliances and heating and air conditioning systems. Customers could use the control system while at home or access it via the Internet or telephone while away to check on energy prices and turn various devices on or off to minimize energy bills. Utilities may be content to let other businesses develop and market household energy management information systems. Chiefly, according to Legge, they are focused on capturing the benefits of smart grid technology on their side of the meter. Smart grid technology offers better control and efficiency in the grid, he noted. The meters also allow electric utilities to more quickly pinpoint and respond to power outages. Pacific Gas & Electric attorney Christopher Warner concurred, telling the CPUC last month the utility does not plan to get involved in home area networks, leaving development of that piece of the smart grid to other companies. The company said consumers would have to pay third parties for any equipment on the household side of smart meters to gain control over their energy use. The CPUC expects to make a decision about how to handle data related to smart meters--including its release to third parties like telecommunications companies--on October 28.

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