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Alameda Municipal Power details technology program benefits


From the May 26, 2017 issue of Public Power Daily

Originally published May 25, 2017

By Paul Ciampoli
News Director

California public power utility Alameda Municipal Power recently launched a significant new technology program that includes the deployment of smart meters and is expected to result in a variety of benefits for the utility’s customers, as well as Alameda Municipal Power itself.

For the utility’s customers, they will have new mobile options and account management tools, while the utility and its customers will be able to derive several benefits from new rate design options that may flow from the program.

In addition, the utility is utilizing a unique approach to financing the technology program by, among other things, tapping funds from the short-term sale of renewable energy credits. There are not expected to be any rate increases associated with the project for customers.

Details of program unveiled in March

In March, the public power utility said that it was taking steps to transform its electric grid into a smart, innovative system with the launch of a new technology program called Energy inView.

The Energy inView program has two elements: (1) the installation of smart meters, an effort that got underway in April, and (2) the launch of new mobile and account management tools in the fall of 2017.

The program will start with an upgrade of customer meters and offer many benefits, Alameda Municipal Power said, including faster restoration of power outages and robust data to help customers manage and understand their energy usage.

Alameda Municipal Power General Manager Nico Procos and Kathleen Haley, senior communications specialist at the utility, discussed the new program in an interview with the American Public Power Association in late March.

Procos was appointed general manager of Alameda Municipal Power in February, replacing Glenn Steiger, who retired from the utility in August.

Alameda Municipal Power is a department of Alameda, California, and has served residents and businesses for 130 years. It provides power to more than 34,000 customers at rates that average 16 percent below neighboring communities.

A lot more data

Alameda Municipal Power expects to complete meter installations for residential and commercial customers throughout the island of Alameda by December 2017. Customers will receive notification prior to their scheduled meter upgrade.

In the interview, Procos said the utility will be pulling meters over several months, “so our focus is really on that because that’s no small undertaking.”

He said that the utility’s effort will yield a “whole host of benefits” for Alameda Municipal Power’s customers, as well as the utility itself.

“For us, obviously, we have a lot more data,” Procos said. “We’re going to be managing roughly about three times the amount of data that we manage right now, so that’s a big component of this,” he said.

“Data is good. Everyone likes data. But it really boils down to what do you do with the data, and can you do something with the data,” the Alameda Municipal Power general manager said.

For the utility, there are benefits in terms of reducing manual processes “and then we get into the rate options, so we’re going to be able to go into different rate schedules and rate structures for our customers,” Procos said in the interview.

He said that there are some savings in terms of operations, but he also noted that “nobody does one of these projects because they think they’re going to save on meter reading costs.” There are other costs that crop up. “It’s really the customer benefits,” with more transparency, he said.

Customers will be able to manage their data “and do whatever they want with the data and so I think that’s kind of interesting and exciting for us, and for them as well,” he said.

Benefits of program include new rate options, faster outage restoration

In a March 17 news release, Alameda Municipal Power detailed the following benefits that will flow from the new technology program:

  • A greener process: Smart meters will send usage information wirelessly to Alameda Municipal Power, eliminating the need for the utility to access customers’ properties each month. Fewer vehicle trips will mean fewer greenhouse-gas emissions in Alameda;
  • Faster outage restoration: Smart meters will report outages via an electronic signal to the utility. That means customers won’t need to call Alameda Municipal Power to report an outage, and the utility will be able to restore power more quickly;
  • Potential new rate options: The new technology will allow Alameda Municipal Power to create potential new rate options that may benefit customers financially;
  • Mobile options and account-management tools: The utility is developing new mobile options and account-management tools that will allow customers to pay their electric bill from any device, anywhere, and anytime. Customers will be able to sign up for text alerts on how much energy they’re using or when their bill is due. Plus, they will have the option to track their energy use for every hour of the day.

New rate options

With respect to new rate options, Procos mentioned time-of-use rates as one possibility. He noted that some of the utility’s larger customers have a time-of-use rate option capability, but “we don’t really do that right now.”

He also noted that the new technology program could allow for instituting demand charges on the residential side.

From a cost of service perspective, the utility will be able to design rates and different offerings that will “align much better with the costs to provide that service to those customers,” he said.  

Procos also expanded upon the other benefits that will flow from the smart meter installation in terms of environmental benefits and faster outage restoration.

The utility’s customer service representatives and operations personnel “are now going to have an incredible amount of visibility on our system,” he said. “We’re going to be able to read meters essentially remotely.”

In terms of greenhouse emissions, “we’re not having meter readers driving all over the city reading those meters so there’s significant savings there,” Procos noted.

“From a customer perspective, when we have outages, we have a certain level of granularity as it is right now, but this really gets us down to the really small level of granularity,” he said.

Alameda Municipal Power will “be able to see when a meter goes out and we’ll be able to diagnose that essentially 24/7 and be able to respond to that and then we can either return the service remotely, which saves on a truck roll, or if it’s diagnosed that that’s not feasible, we can do what we always do and send a truck,” Procos said.

Another customer benefit relates to move ins and move outs. “All utilities deal with this,” Procos noted. In Alameda, the city has a very large renter population. “So we get a significant amount of calls about customers who are moving in and customers who are moving out,” Procos said. With smart meters, the utility will be able to turn on a customer’s service instantaneously.   

Prior general manager had smart meter experience

When asked to describe the process that led up to Alameda Municipal Power’s decision to launch its new technology program and install smart meters, Procos noted that Steiger had experience with smart meter program use when he served as the general manager and CEO at California public power utility Glendale Water and Power. “I think his experience went really well there,” Procos said.

Procos said that while Steiger was general manager at Alameda Municipal Power the utility implemented a pilot study to see “if this was a good fit for Alameda” and subsequently the utility “decided to go into full blown implementation.”

Learning from the experience of others

In a separate interview, Ann McCormick, president of the Alameda Public Utilities Board, was asked to discuss her thought process as work on the program progressed and whether she had any markers in terms of what she hopes the program will ultimately achieve.

“We were certainly hoping for full-scale deployment, that these would be tools that all of our customers would have” and that it would be equitable to all customer classes, McCormick said.

She was particularly interested in “lessons learned from other utilities” in terms of meter technology installers, software technology and customer tools.

“As I understand it, we’ve been in a good position to benefit from those lessons learned,” McCormick said.

“I think we’ve also been able to take advantage of market adoption by customers,” she added. “I don’t know that there was the full understanding or the acceptance of smart meters ten years ago.”

Alameda Municipal Power benefited from the “early adoption headaches” experienced by other utilities, McCormick said in the interview.

Unique approach to financing project

In the March 17 news release announcing the project, the utility noted that installation of the smart meters will be paid for by capital improvement monies and funds from the short-term sale of renewable energy credits.

“These are not inexpensive undertakings,” Procos noted in the interview, adding that the total project is projected to cost about $11 million.

“To be able to come up with $11 million for a utility of our size, and any utility, is challenging,” he said.

He said that decisions were made at Alameda Municipal Power “a long time ago to really focus on buying renewable energy to the extent that we’re at about” seventy percent renewable in a usual year, Procos said.

The utility decided that the best way to fund the new technology program was by taking advantage of its surplus renewable energy. “We didn’t technically need it all to meet our regulatory requirements,” Procos said. 

Alameda Municipal Power sold RECs to help fund a variety of projects at the utility including the advanced metering infrastructure project.

“Whereas a lot of utilities might get caught up on the cost side of things, we optimized our existing portfolio” and the utility was able to “find the funding, so the good news” is that there are no rate increases associated with the project, Procos went on to say.  

Outreach activities

Meanwhile, the Alameda Municipal Power officials detailed the types of outreach activities the utility has done in relation to the smart meter rollout and describing the benefits of smart meters to customers.

“We developed a communication plan and we’ve produced a number of deliverables to educate our customers and stakeholders,” said Haley.

“We’re in the first phase of the rollout of smart meters. We’re starting off with about 2,000 meters and we are sending out letters to all of those affected,” she said. “All of the customers, all of the residential and commercial customers who will get a smart meter, will receive a letter ahead of time explaining what it is, explaining why they’re getting it.”

Also, “later this year we will do the full rollout of all of our meters. Everyone who will get a meter will get this letter.”

Along with the letters, customers will receive a brochure that highlights the programs benefits.

Alameda Municipal Power also communicated about the program and explained the program’s benefits in the March issue of its customer newsletter, Haley noted.

While McCormick said that Alameda Municipal Power has done a good job in terms of proactively communicating with customers about the smart meter effort, “I believe we need to be reactive as well” and “course correct as we go to make sure that issues are being addressed.”

The utility has an extensive FAQ section on its website related to the new technology program. The FAQ section is posted on a webpage on Alameda Municipal Power’s website dedicated to the InView program.

Along with the FAQ section, the webpage includes a program overview, details on the program’s benefits and discussion of the smart meter installation process.

Procos noted that “when you talk about smart meters, there’s always a discussion of some customers who want to opt out.”

He said that the opt out option is available to Alameda Municipal Power customers. “It’s not free. There are fees and charges associated with that and that’s pretty consistent with what other utilities are doing. I think to date – even though we’re still kind of in the early stages – we’ve received one opt out request so far to date,” as of the late March interview.

Customer interest in EVs, storage and rooftop solar

Meanwhile, utility officials discussed their sense as to how much interest the utility’s customers have in electric vehicles, rooftop solar and energy storage.

“We’re really not getting a lot of inquiries on the storage side of things,” Procos said. On the customer side, storage doesn’t pencil out in terms of the cost-benefit question, he said.

With respect to rooftop solar, he noted that “we do have a substantial amount of solar penetration here in Alameda. In fact, we’re about to reach our cap,” Procos said. He noted that all utilities in the state have a certain amount of capacity that they can allocate to solar, with special associated rate treatments.

“We did come up with a successor program to that, with the idea that we want to continue to promote rooftop solar,” but at the same time there are fairness issues, he went on to say.

He said that the way in which utilities address rooftop solar can be “a little bit clunky” at times. “Sometimes our billing system can’t accommodate it,” Procos said. With smart meters, “we feel that we’ll have a much more robust system and we’ll be able to deal with these a little bit better and make our process a little bit more efficient.”

With respect to EVs, “we had a discussion with our board” earlier this year about EVs. “California, I think, is now shifting gears a little bit where everyone’s recognizing a lot of the greenhouse gas savings are going to come from transportation,” the Alameda Municipal Power general manager said.

“Utilities like us are gearing up” to try and answer the question as to “what is our role in that? And I think having the smart meter program will enable us to have different rate structures that may be able to promote EV penetration,” he remarked.

In addition, the utility will be able to monitor “EV impacts on our grid with much more granular data.” If clusters of EVs emerge, and that in turn has an impact on, for example, a transformer, “and it’s reaching its capacity, then we’ll be able to see that essentially and we’ll be able to go out there and make adjustments or change out that transformer as needed,” Procos said in the interview.   

When asked to discuss customer interest in EVs, rooftop solar and energy storage, McCormick said that when one talks about load-shaping technologies, “understanding your load and your energy use and understanding our rates is first and foremost,” McCormick said.

“So I think the AMI project will set the stage” for customers to better understand what their options are and what the benefits of each of those options are.

Early markers for success

McCormick said that the first measure of success for the program will be the seamless installation of smart meters with zero to few complaints. 

Another early indicator of success for the program “will be the adoption of the tools, the interaction with the website and the mobile tools,” she said.

“And then, we’ll go from there. Then we’ll have more opportunities as we look at program design for energy efficiency, for distributed generation, for rate design,” McCormick went on to say.

 

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