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Anchorage electric utilities pursue smart meters to manage outages, cut costs

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: December 18, 2016
  • Published December 18, 2016

Some of Alaska's largest electric companies are shifting to high-tech meters that can quickly identify outages and send consumption data back to the utility — technology that also sets the stage for customers in urban areas to closely monitor their own power use.

The Valley-based Matanuska Electric Association has replaced about half of its 60,000 meters with advanced "smart" meters. The utility can see which meters are on or off — helpful during a power outage — and can be disconnected remotely, said MEA spokeswoman Julie Estey.

Customers with the new meters can also track daily power usage in an online portal, Estey said.

She said the utility's general manager recently made the shift a budget priority, and all of the meters are expected to be replaced in two years.

The same shift is happening for Chugach Electric Association, the member-owned utility in Anchorage. Since a small pilot program in 2014, Chugach has switched out two-thirds of its 80,000 meters for customers with the "smart" meters. The new meters replace 20-year-old meters that were almost obsolete, said Julie Hasquet, Chugach spokeswoman.

The $14 million project is expected to wrap up in October 2017, Hasquet said. As with MEA, the new meters alert the utility to power outages, and can be disconnected remotely. Employees will no longer have to go out in trucks to read meters, Hasquet said.

Next year, Chugach is also hoping to introduce what it plans to call a "member engagement platform" that will allow members to monitor their own power use, get outage alerts and pay their bill, Hasquet said.

The city-owned Anchorage electric utility, Municipal Light and Power, is also planning to start experimenting with the more advanced smart meters soon.

Fewer than 100 meters will take part in a pilot project that will run for six months starting in early 2017, said spokeswoman Julie Harris.

The general manager of ML&P, Mark Johnston, said in an interview that the pilot program will help the utility decide how to move forward on a full-scale upgrade for its roughly 30,000 meters.

Earlier this month, the Anchorage Assembly approved an $125,000 ML&P contract with a Louisiana-based utility consultant, Utiliworks LLC. The consultant will advise ML&P on the installation, according to documents submitted to the Assembly.

Smart meters are widespread in the Lower 48, but the technology has been slow to come to Southcentral Alaska, the state's population hub. A big storm in 2012 prompted both utilities to take a hard look at how to communicate more effectively with customers during a power outage.

In rural Alaska, smart meters that more closely monitor power use have been in place for more than a decade.

Villages in rural Alaska started installing prepaid metering systems in 2006, in response to high electricity costs and problems with utilities collecting payments.

Right now, at least 43 communities have installed the systems, which allow customers to monitor power use in real time, said Clarissa Quinlan, who owns Utility Metering Systems, a small company that works on the installations. "Smart cards," using chip technology, can communicate directly with utility offices and can be accessed remotely.

"They are, however, smart meters, and they have tremendous functionality," Quinlan said. "It's similar to what (the Anchorage-area utilities) are using, and probably even a little bit more so."

Why has it taken the big utilities so long to catch up? Quinlan called it "dollars and cents."

"Utilities have already invested in these other meters," Quinlan said, referring to the older technology currently being swapped out by the larger utilities. "They can't just throw out the old meters, all of them."

She also said the technique of allowing meters to communicate directly with utility offices has been perfected within the past several years.

The evolution of the technology is one reason why ML&P is only just starting the shift, Johnston said.

"We wanted to make sure we weren't on the bleeding edge of technology," Johnston said.

But he said it's shown results for the other utilities, especially in managing large-scale outages and not requiring utilities to send out employees on trucks to read meters.

He said ML&P won't initially have a way for people to monitor power use in real time. But that may follow the upcoming pilot program, he said.

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