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Solid footing for a smart grid future

In 2003, when comtemplating the rural utility's options for sustainably moving forward, the management team at Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative-headquartered in Bastrop, Texas-came to a decision that, over time, has proven its wisdom in placing the utility on a solid footing for a fully functioning smart-grid future.

But things didn't necessarily look quite so rosy at the time, when Bluebonnet moved forward and began to deploy automated meter reading (AMR) equipment, which at that time represented the technologically elite choice.

Since then, of course, lightning-quick technological development has brought advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to the fore as today's metering system of choice, with its many forward-looking capabilities.

Everything happens for a reason

Yet Bluebonnet feels it's getting a more-than-reasonable return on its original AMR investment, which involved full AMR deployment across Bluebonnet's sprawling territory (stretching from the eastern suburban areas of Austin to the far western reaches of living space within commutable distance to Houston).

In fact, it's one of those anecdotal stories of "everything happens for a reason"-because Bluebonnet, like a myriad of other utilities, applied in 2009 to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a stimulus grant to fund near-term deployment of AMI technology across its service territory.

Bluebonnet's DOE grant application, however, was not successful.

"Oh, I was outraged when we didn't get a DOE grant," said Bluebonnet chief executive officer Mark Rose. "I was just outraged-because I thought, `This is an insult.' It was ego, you know-and I'm thinking, `We're ahead of every rural utility in America by my book, yet we don't get one of the grants.'

"Sure, I was furious at DOE. But now I thank 'em for passing me up, because they forced me to get out of the `meter race,' and look at what my true needs are."

Back-office focus proved fruitful

To make a long story short, Bluebonnet took the occasion of not receiving a DOE grant to examine where it stood: fully deployed with more than 80,000 AMR meters across its 11,000-mile line length, but with a deficiency of backoffice capacity to assimilate and fully utilize the volume of information that could be derived even from its admittedly limited-capability AMR system.

And the co-op's more-or-less antiquated back-office operation would certainly be deficient if it were to be forced in the future to handle the burgeoning information volume that would come with eventual (and inevitable) AMI deployment.

"Our density only averages about seven meters per mile of distribution line," said Bluebonnet chief operating officer Matt Bentke. "That makes it a different animal completely in recovering cost, compared to highly dense metropolitan areas.

"So in our case, we said, `Okay, we have our AMR technology in place. It's reliable-and we're deploying some relatively inexpensive technology to get hourly reads from those meters. And we want to maximize the life of our AMR deployment.' In order to do that, we began to focus on our back-office systems."

Putting information in customers' hands

Having now upgraded its back-office operations with a highly capable meter data management (MDM) system, Bluebonnet is interacting better than ever with its members-who today can log onto the cooperative's member Web portal (trademarked as Bluebonnet's "Net Energy Market") and get previous-day updates on their accounts.

Those updates include a day-by-day accounting of the individual member's energy consumption, the member's patterns of consumption, current costs in the billing cycle, a projected bill based on current usage and many other useful items.

"We have all that information here," Bentke said. "Our goal is to put that information in the hands of our members.

"We've had such overwhelming positive feedback from our members on the Web portal and Net Energy Market. Members have contacted us and said, `I always had a feeling this was happening in my energy consumption, and now I know it and I can do something about it.' It's all about the information we can provide."

And that's all about the smart grid, which revolves around the free flow and exchange of information. Bluebonnet sees its operations and the information it can make readily available to its members in terms of a "sustainable grid," another term the cooperative has trademarked.

"You, the consumer, have a right to know everything about your account that we know-when we know it," said Rose. "Everything is based on information."

A revolving relationship with customer-owners

Rose waxes almost poetic when he philosophizes about the evolving relationship between electric utilities and customers- customers who are actually owners in the case of an electric cooperative.

"One of the biggest challenges we face as the `average' leadership of a retail or distribution utility is that we often don't really understand what it is we do for a living," Rose said. "We do not sell kilowatt-hours-that is not what we do.

"We perform the service of providing electricity."

And in that regard, Rose sees a clear road ahead, although technology may develop so swiftly and thoroughly that no one can tell just what electrical systems will look like within a relatively few years.

"Our entire approach to this program is based on customer demand and convenience and rights-the fundamental right of the customer to know and have access," said Rose. "And it's based on economics: We're going to bring a package to the consumer that makes sense, has no surprises and is attractive to their needs."

Electricity's new economic equation

"I think you're going to see a rate structure in electricity very similar to your cell phone-like, here are these basic packages, and you're in this class, or this class, or that class, based on your consumption, based on your needs, and it can give you some certainty," said Rose.

It's a new economic equation to think about in electricity. And between here and there-today and tomorrow-the elements of the smart grid are being devised, developed, assembled, deployed, tweaked, improved and eventually completely reinvented.

"I will predict right now that by the time we get really ready to fully deploy the AMI meter, we won't be talking about an AMI meter," Rose said. "We'll be talking about another technology.

"We've begun to say that our shop is not about the meter that the utility wants-it's about the services the consumer is going to actually use."

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