From Smart Meter Pilot To Full Rollout – Lessons From California

Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart meter deployment, the largest in the US, provides important lessons for large-scale rollouts.
Published: Fri 23 Oct 2015

Pilot projects are commonplace today as utilities look to test new and different technologies in their service territories before deploying them on a wider scale among all their customers or across their network.

In general the pilots tend to be of limited scope in terms of their capabilities and customer populations, often in limited geographical areas, and of short duration with a modest budget under a small dedicated project team.

As such, and while invaluable to gaining experience in the deployment and use of such technologies, these pilots nevertheless only partially prepare utilities for a full scale rollout. The complexity of a rollout increases with size, and for larger utilities with millions of endpoints there are indeed many issues to consider and monitor.

While the prospect can be daunting, valuable lessons have emerged from the experiences of first movers such as the California IOUs. The largest of these, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), has installed almost 10 million smart meters – 5.4 million electric and 4.3 million natural gas – making its rollout the largest in the US.

PG&E’s experience is reviewed by Bill Devereaux, Vice President Strategy at Oracle Utilities, in an Engerati briefing: How to go from Pilot to Full Roll-out: learnings from the largest meter deployment in the US.

PG&E’s smart meter business case

Mr Devereaux, who was previously at PG&E where he led the smart meter deployment, says that PG&E has a diverse service territory of more than 180,000km2 (70,000 square miles), covering approximately two-thirds of California.

“A smart meter deployment on such a scale presents a major engineering challenge that shouldn’t be underestimated,” says Mr Devereaux.

While California’s smart meter rollout was premised on the opportunity for improved demand response in the state, PG&E found additional potential benefits in meter reading cost savings and improved operations when developing its business case. It also calculated that these would outweigh its deployment costs including that of the meters themselves, its communications infrastructure and installation labour.

Mr Devereaux explains how utilities are building on the first generation of business cases for smart meters: “The experiences of PG&E and other large-scale utilities have uncovered many other areas of opportunity made possible by using smart meter data to improve the customer experience and utility business processes. Perhaps the most significant advantage uncovered in the US is how this data can help optimize the planning and operation of distribution networks, with applications throughout the utility value chain.”

Lessons learned from PG&E’s deployment

Mr Devereaux points to four key lessons utilities should consider to ensure  a successful deployment of their own.

Firstly, there is a need for organizational readiness. For utilities like PG&E , a large-scale smart meter deployment is a significant endeavour that touches every customer and opens up many opportunities to improve business processes. Ensuring their organization is up to the task can be challenging as it requires employees across the business prepare themselves for both the work involved and the new possibilities that emerge.

It is also crucial that utilities leverage the data they collect in a way that allows them to meet the objectives of their business case. In PG&E’s case, a large number of the benefits had been guaranteed to ratepayers via regulatory mechanisms so it was crucial they delivered on these.

The right tools are critical to run the deployment and to take advantage of the opportunities that smart meters provide for customers and the utility.

Finally, and most importantly, a positive customer impact must be a top priority. A smart meter deployment should be a rewarding experience for customers, who for their part will want to understand why it is being carried out and how they will benefit.

“Never take your eye off the customer,” says Mr Devereaux.

Recommendations for a smart meter deployment

In the briefing, Mr Devereaux also discusses deployment challenges that utilities may face, including access issues, communication and data challenges, and field preparedness.

He presents six priorities for utilities to keep in mind throughout their deployment:

• Establish clear priorities based on the business case

• Deploy the network first

• Remember that site reconnaissance is key to an efficient deployment

• Provide employees with the correct resource and planning tools

• Test continuously

• Continually improve the approach and mind-set adopted based on learnings along the way.

“With a smart meter deployment we have the opportunity to really change how consumers view and use their energy, not to mention the opportunities that the data they generate offer utilities,” says Mr Devereaux. “Customers in California are now realizing the benefits in material ways and the lessons learned from large-scale deployments by PG&E and other utilities in the US will only drive further progress in the coming years.”

For more insight into PG&E’s smart meter rollout and the lessons learned, register for the briefing.

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