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Utility2utility: Grayson-Collin Electric Cooperative

The Grayson-Collin Electric Cooperative serves Grayson and Collin counties in Texas. For this installment of our popular utility2utility article series, we spoke to David McGinnis about the co-op’s metering program and cellular communication choices.

 

Intelligent Utility: What was the impetus for your advanced metering deployment? 

McGinnis: Grayson-Collin Electric Cooperative has actually used a form of advanced meters since 1997, when we began installing Turtles from Hunt Technologies. However, we believed that we needed some additional capabilities that have not been available through this technology; so we sought an upgrade. While the powerline carrier version of reporting meter information worked well in the past, there were some limitations that we feel prompted the need to upgrade our technology. We serve a growing portion of the DFW metroplex, and we must balance load and switch between substations frequently, depending on seasonal conditions and demand. The powerline carrier technology currently in place is somewhat cumbersome in these situations.  We believe the deployment of the cell-phone based uploads of data will enhance our member service.

 

Intelligent Utility: What's the scale and scope of that deployment, and when do you expect completion?  

McGinnis: Our system is 100 percent powerline-carrier-read today. We intend to replace about 7,000 meters annually, which is expected to take 5-7 years to complete. Now that the project has actually begun, we are finding that we have many members who like the new technology being offered. We have had many requests for new meters, with very few members asking to “opt out” of the advanced meter deployment. The original estimate of 7,000 meter exchanges annually may well be too conservative.  It seems that the replacements will be limited to the lead times based on availability and delivery of the meters.

 

Intelligent Utility: Why choose cellular communications for your deployment? 

McGinnis: Our research revealed three types of communication: powerline carrier, RF mesh and cellular. Powerline carrier technology is still limited. The decision largely centered on RF mesh vs. cellular. We didn’t see the need to duplicate a network when cell carriers have done a good job of covering our service area. As has been mentioned earlier, we are blessed to serve a growing portion of the northern edge of the DFW metroplex. As new developments create new homes and businesses to serve these communities, we are seeing the need for additional feed-swaps to balance the load on our distribution system. The powerline carrier system currently in place is dependent on the meter “knowing” which substation to which it is connected. As we switch load from one substation to another, this information is no longer correct, necessitating a trip to the meter to reprogram it for the new substation. The implementation of cell-based technology will eliminate these added trips to the homes.

 

Intelligent Utility: What hurdles do you expect with this deployment? 

McGinnis: We will have to educate the membership due to some factual misinformation concerning advanced meters. At this time, we have not incurred many hurdles or roadblocks. We have a few members who are requesting to “opt out” of advanced meter installation because of what we believe are skewed or erroneous reports on negative health issues or invasion of privacy from advanced meters. The Public Utility Commission is developing “opt out” rules. While co-ops are exempt from the TPUC rules, we generally follow those that make sense for the co-op and its members. In this case, we plan to develop and “opt out” policy; however, we expect to unrest because the state law allows the utility to collect monthly meter reading expenses. We are watching the rule making and TPUC commissioner decisions for other utilities to help us determine how much of the actual meter reading cost we can actually recover.

 

Intelligent Utility: What benefits are you looking for? 

McGinnis: The best benefit will be system reliability. Grayson-Collin is a rapidly growing electric cooperative, and we see the need for feed changes regularly. This is limited with the powerline carrier method of obtaining information. Additionally, outage detection has been very beneficial in the pilot test and during the full deployment. One small benefit is the ability to offer pre-paid accounting to our members. We currently have a policy/tariff requiring a deposit when an applicant’s credit or payment history is less than desirable. Through pre-paid accounting, many nearby co-ops have almost eliminated the need to collect and hold a deposit from a new member. The new applicant can now pre-pay for any amount of electricity they desire. Through the use of smart phone apps, the internet and the capabilities of the new meters, we can now alert the member of their balance in near real time. The member can “recharge” the meter be paying on-line or the next day when the office opens. Our research into pre-paid accounting revealed that utilities offering this service have seen as much as 50 percent decline in collections and annual bad-debt write-offs.

 

Intelligent Utility: How did the use of a cellular comm system in the pilot impact your decision for full deployment? 

McGinnis: Had the pilot not been successful, we would have continued research. However, we have been pleased with the results; and we now have over 3,000 meters installed. Because service from the cell carrier is good, we have been able to detect and correct a few power quality issues in the short time we have been testing and deploying the new meters. During a recent ice storm that many north Texas media outlets nicknamed “Icemagedon,” we received many compliments from members who had left home to stay with family or friends during the extended outage. When the meters began reporting power restoration, the members knew that they could go back home.

 

Intelligent Utility: What advice would you give other electric cooperatives looking at similar metering projects?  

McGinnis: We have always found that thorough research and due diligence is helpful. In the case of this major decision that will affect every member of the co-op, we actually performed two fairly detailed pilot projects. The initial project was deemed a failure for a variety of reasons. The second test project revealed several questions, whereby we sought answers before moving forward. My best advice would be to test, retest and then test again. I would also advise management to rely heavily on the IT departments and actually listen to their concerns and suggestions. More often than not, these are newer employees at the co-op, and they are less likely to get caught up in the “ that’s not how we’ve always done it” trap. I’ve found that these employees have some good ideas when we listen. Secondly, call your neighbors. Find out what they are planning, and how it’s working.  Anyone is welcome to give us a call for information on our pilot projects and decisions.

 

 

Other articles in this series:

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