Power utility uses broadband over own lines to boost customer service

Broadband-over-powerlines hasn't taken off as a means of delivering fast internet to consumers, but a US electricity provider plans to harness it to improve its internal operations. Todd R Weiss reports

A Houston-based electric and gas utility company is using new technology from IBM to make its power grid more efficient by enabling it to automatically report power outages, component failures and other information over a real-time, IP-based broadband-over-powerline system.

CenterPoint Energy Houston Electric is deploying a pilot of an "intelligent grid" that will allow the power grid to transmit its status using strategically placed sensors and new "smart" electric meters which will be installed at its customers' premises.

Don Cortez, vice president of distribution support at the company, says the new technology will help the utility to virtually upgrade its power lines, substations and other electrical transmission equipment without a hugely expensive physical replacement. The price tag for the five-year project is US$300 million (NZ$442 million).

Cortez says the power system still largely uses wire and components from the 1950s, but demand for power is much higher now than then.

"What we really need to do is add a layer of intelligence to that 1950s wire," Cortez says. "What we're putting together is the enabling platform to make this happen."

Under the pilot project, several hundred sensors will be placed in strategic locations throughout the power grid and connected to a pilot BPL (broadband-over-powerline) system the company completed last year. The sensors will be like eyes and ears that can deliver information on the condition of the system, including voltages and other feedback, via the BPL system directly to IBM-provided databases and analytical software. "Obviously, the more [sensors] I have, the more information I get back," he says.

The pilot intelligent grid programme will be deployed in three areas in Houston this year, covering about 44,500 electrical customers and about 22,500 natural gas customers. The company has about 1.9 million electric customers and 1 million natural gas customers, Cortez says.

Over the next five years, the company plans to replace the 1.9 million electrical meters with smart meters that will provide instant data, such as power loss and voltage information. The smart meters will also allow the utility to connect and disconnect customers from the power system without having to physically visit the home or business.

The new meters will also provide benefits for customers, Cortez says, such as the ability to monitor their electrical consumption in real time so they can change their usage habits and save money. With the new meters, customers won't have to call the utility in the event of a power outage as they must do today. Instead, the meters will report the problem instantly.

Using the pilot BPL system, the intelligent grid can send bidirectional information to the utility so the data can be evaluated and used to make operations more efficient, Cortez says. "It's like one giant LAN now," he says.

Raymond Blair, vice president of BPL initiatives at IBM's energy and utility industry division, says the intelligent grid technology will enable utilities to know much more about what's happening on their aging networks.

"Part of what we're doing is giving them that visibility," he says. Using the data captured from the sensors and smart meters in the system, CenterPoint will eventually be able to perform data analytics to use its network more efficiently. "There's going to be mountains of [data]," Blair says.

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