News

Palo Alto sets the stage for 'smart meter' switch

Utilities Advisory Commission backs $18.5M in transfers to fund advanced metering infrastructure

Palo Alto's move to "advanced metering infrastructure" will require installation of five "base stations" with 10 boxes, like the one pictured on the right. Courtesy city of Palo Alto.

After eight years of wavering, debating and planning, Palo Alto is preparing to begin its switch to "smart meters," a $20 million move that city leaders believe will make local electric, gas and water utilities more efficient and reliable.

The city is set to approve contracts with three companies that the Utilities Department has selected to install what's known as "advanced metering infrastructure," a system in which meters and data management tools allow communication between customers and utilities.

A report from the Utilities Department calls advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) "a foundational technology that is becoming a standard in the utilities industry." The technology, the report notes, helps improve customer experience, strengthens reliability and enables the community to meet its sustainability goals, according to the report. It could, for example, provide customers with real-time data energy use and help them find the optimal time to charge their vehicles or use their appliances. It could also also alert customers about water leaks.

The city's switch to smart meters will cost about $20 million to implement. This includes a payment of about $12.7 million to Sensus, the firm that the city selected through its bidding process to replace all 30,326 existing electric meters with its own "smart" meters. Palo Alto also plans to pay up to $4.7 million to Utilities Partners of America, a Sensus subcontractor, for installation services, and $1.3 million to Smart Works for data management.

It will also require a shake-up in the Utilities Department, where seven meter-reader positions will become obsolete. The report notes that the city will make the "best efforts" to train and reassign seven staff members to new roles once the new technology is adopted. At the same time, the city is preparing to create new positions, including an AMI manager, AMI systems technician and MDMS (meter data management systems) data analyst, to manage the systems associated with the new technology.

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While smart meters are hardly new, with about half of all public utilities and more than 80% of investor-owned utilities like PG&E already employing them, the City Council's conversion to the technology is relatively recent. In 2012, the council opted not to make the switch, citing high costs and uncertain benefits. Council members had a change of heart in November 2018, when they unanimously endorsed the technology and approved a road map for implementing it.

A key step in the implementation process occurred on July 7, when the Utilities Advisory Commission voted to approve drawing $18.5 million from the Utilities Department's "electric special projects" reserves to pay for advanced metering infrastructure (the funds will ultimately be replenished by electric, gas and water ratepayers). The council is scheduled to approve the commission's recommendation once it returns from its summer recess.

The commission, which has been discussing the project for years, generally agreed that the switch will benefit both the city and customers. The only dissenter was Commissioner Phil Metz, who suggested that the city should develop a clear plan for "smart grid" programs before proceeding with the investment. Other commissioners, including A.C. Johnston and Greg Scharff, all supported moving ahead without further delay.

"It's really exciting to see this moving forward and getting close to actual implementation," Johnston said during the July 7 discussion.

Johnston and commission Chair Lisa Forssell both said they were concerned about potential cybersecurity threats to the advanced metering system. While they were assured by staff that each of the vendors complies with industry standards when it comes to privacy and security, Forssell urged staff to work with auditors and security firms to perform infiltration tests to ensure the system is safe.

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And while commissioners generally agreed that the system would bring tangible benefits to electric and water users, Scharff noted that the benefit for gas customers is less tangible and questioned the need to invest in the gas utility, which may gradually get phased out over the coming years as the city tries to meet its sustainability goals.

Utilities staff noted, however, that keeping existing gas meters in place would require the city to retain meter readers and thereby forgo one of the major economic benefits of switching to the new system.

"Not investing in radios for the gas utility is not economical because we would be sending meter readers just to read the gas meters," said Shiva Swaminathan, senior resource planner at Utilities Department.

The project will unfold in phases, with about 100 meters installed in early 2022 and an additional 3,000 meters in late 2022 and early 2023. Crews would then install the remaining 71,000 meters by the end of 2024. In addition to replacing every electric meter, the project calls for replacing 8,369 water meters that are more than 20 years old. The rest would be retrofitted with "SmartPoints" to enable a connection to advanced metering infrastructure. About 24,000 gas meters would also be retrofitted with "SmartPoints" so that each would contain a radio that would wirelessly transmit gas data.

Utilities staff noted that the system would provide customers with information that would enable them to use gas more efficiently, thus allowing the city to buy less gas and the customer to achieve savings on their bills.

"AMI is very cost effective because you're helping people save simply by providing information. That's where the community sees bill savings — by not having to buy that additional gas because they're using the information from their AMI system to use energy more efficiently," Jonathan Abendschein, assistant director for utilities resource management, said at the meeting.

Metz, meanwhile, noted that the city has yet to fully define the "smart grid" programs that it hopes to implement once the new technology is in place. Utilities officials talk about their desire to implement "time-of-use" rates and "distributed energy" systems that encourage, for instance, electric-vehicle owners to charge their cars during off-peak periods. The city, Metz said, should develop a "concrete plan" for these programs to justify the city's investment in advanced metering infrastructure.

"I sort of feel like 'smart grid' was used as a slogan and not fleshed out. … What will we do about it, to get some value from automated metering?" Metz asked.

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Palo Alto sets the stage for 'smart meter' switch

Utilities Advisory Commission backs $18.5M in transfers to fund advanced metering infrastructure

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jul 14, 2021, 9:30 am

After eight years of wavering, debating and planning, Palo Alto is preparing to begin its switch to "smart meters," a $20 million move that city leaders believe will make local electric, gas and water utilities more efficient and reliable.

The city is set to approve contracts with three companies that the Utilities Department has selected to install what's known as "advanced metering infrastructure," a system in which meters and data management tools allow communication between customers and utilities.

A report from the Utilities Department calls advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) "a foundational technology that is becoming a standard in the utilities industry." The technology, the report notes, helps improve customer experience, strengthens reliability and enables the community to meet its sustainability goals, according to the report. It could, for example, provide customers with real-time data energy use and help them find the optimal time to charge their vehicles or use their appliances. It could also also alert customers about water leaks.

The city's switch to smart meters will cost about $20 million to implement. This includes a payment of about $12.7 million to Sensus, the firm that the city selected through its bidding process to replace all 30,326 existing electric meters with its own "smart" meters. Palo Alto also plans to pay up to $4.7 million to Utilities Partners of America, a Sensus subcontractor, for installation services, and $1.3 million to Smart Works for data management.

It will also require a shake-up in the Utilities Department, where seven meter-reader positions will become obsolete. The report notes that the city will make the "best efforts" to train and reassign seven staff members to new roles once the new technology is adopted. At the same time, the city is preparing to create new positions, including an AMI manager, AMI systems technician and MDMS (meter data management systems) data analyst, to manage the systems associated with the new technology.

While smart meters are hardly new, with about half of all public utilities and more than 80% of investor-owned utilities like PG&E already employing them, the City Council's conversion to the technology is relatively recent. In 2012, the council opted not to make the switch, citing high costs and uncertain benefits. Council members had a change of heart in November 2018, when they unanimously endorsed the technology and approved a road map for implementing it.

A key step in the implementation process occurred on July 7, when the Utilities Advisory Commission voted to approve drawing $18.5 million from the Utilities Department's "electric special projects" reserves to pay for advanced metering infrastructure (the funds will ultimately be replenished by electric, gas and water ratepayers). The council is scheduled to approve the commission's recommendation once it returns from its summer recess.

The commission, which has been discussing the project for years, generally agreed that the switch will benefit both the city and customers. The only dissenter was Commissioner Phil Metz, who suggested that the city should develop a clear plan for "smart grid" programs before proceeding with the investment. Other commissioners, including A.C. Johnston and Greg Scharff, all supported moving ahead without further delay.

"It's really exciting to see this moving forward and getting close to actual implementation," Johnston said during the July 7 discussion.

Johnston and commission Chair Lisa Forssell both said they were concerned about potential cybersecurity threats to the advanced metering system. While they were assured by staff that each of the vendors complies with industry standards when it comes to privacy and security, Forssell urged staff to work with auditors and security firms to perform infiltration tests to ensure the system is safe.

And while commissioners generally agreed that the system would bring tangible benefits to electric and water users, Scharff noted that the benefit for gas customers is less tangible and questioned the need to invest in the gas utility, which may gradually get phased out over the coming years as the city tries to meet its sustainability goals.

Utilities staff noted, however, that keeping existing gas meters in place would require the city to retain meter readers and thereby forgo one of the major economic benefits of switching to the new system.

"Not investing in radios for the gas utility is not economical because we would be sending meter readers just to read the gas meters," said Shiva Swaminathan, senior resource planner at Utilities Department.

The project will unfold in phases, with about 100 meters installed in early 2022 and an additional 3,000 meters in late 2022 and early 2023. Crews would then install the remaining 71,000 meters by the end of 2024. In addition to replacing every electric meter, the project calls for replacing 8,369 water meters that are more than 20 years old. The rest would be retrofitted with "SmartPoints" to enable a connection to advanced metering infrastructure. About 24,000 gas meters would also be retrofitted with "SmartPoints" so that each would contain a radio that would wirelessly transmit gas data.

Utilities staff noted that the system would provide customers with information that would enable them to use gas more efficiently, thus allowing the city to buy less gas and the customer to achieve savings on their bills.

"AMI is very cost effective because you're helping people save simply by providing information. That's where the community sees bill savings — by not having to buy that additional gas because they're using the information from their AMI system to use energy more efficiently," Jonathan Abendschein, assistant director for utilities resource management, said at the meeting.

Metz, meanwhile, noted that the city has yet to fully define the "smart grid" programs that it hopes to implement once the new technology is in place. Utilities officials talk about their desire to implement "time-of-use" rates and "distributed energy" systems that encourage, for instance, electric-vehicle owners to charge their cars during off-peak periods. The city, Metz said, should develop a "concrete plan" for these programs to justify the city's investment in advanced metering infrastructure.

"I sort of feel like 'smart grid' was used as a slogan and not fleshed out. … What will we do about it, to get some value from automated metering?" Metz asked.

Comments

Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Jul 14, 2021 at 11:48 am
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 11:48 am

You know we're not a boring place when the City wants to make plans specifically for ”eclectic-vehicle owners". :)
Maybe they are thinking of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:08 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:08 pm

There's a great deal of information in this article, but the actual benefits to residents is unclear.

Is the only benefit being able to get up to date of usage?

I would like to see that they bring in cheaper overnight electricity. Half price power would enable dishwashers, laundry, and of course car charging, to be done at cheaper rates.


Rhodoreae
Registered user
Ventura
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:34 pm
Rhodoreae, Ventura
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:34 pm

I am a proud owner of an electric "eclectic-vehicle"!


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:34 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:34 pm

At a party this weekend I was chatting with the president of a downtown condo association and he went on quite the diatribe against smart meters, how they'd drastically raised the condo's utility bills and how they fought with CPAU to get their "dumb" meters back. A huge rate drop followed,


Gennady Sheyner
Registered user
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:37 pm
Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 1:37 pm

Sorry for the eclectic typo and thanks for the catch. For better or worse, it's been fixed.


Pat Markevitch
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jul 14, 2021 at 2:11 pm
Pat Markevitch, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 2:11 pm

20 million? That's outrageous. With all of the cuts the City has had to make (Police, Fire, Community Services, etc...) this seems to be an unnecessary expense.


Green Acres parent
Registered user
Green Acres
on Jul 14, 2021 at 4:45 pm
Green Acres parent, Green Acres
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 4:45 pm

Smart meters could enable finer-grained reporting, including information about what time of day electricity / gas / water is used. They could also enable time-of-use plans. Finally, fine-grained water usage information could be used to automatically detect leaks.


Jennifer
Registered user
another community
on Jul 14, 2021 at 4:48 pm
Jennifer, another community
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2021 at 4:48 pm

We were living in Palo Alto in 2012, and I had no opinion on smart meters. Well, I do now. We couldn't be happier with our PG&E smart meter. Besides everything that is spelled out in the article, a smart meter leads to accurate billing instead of an estimate, which can lead to overbilling. If your bill goes up, it's because you're using more gas and electricity.


Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 15, 2021 at 2:39 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jul 15, 2021 at 2:39 pm

I just heard a Dr. Joel Moskowitz of UC Berkeley on the Pat Thurston radio show today, 12-1, KGO-AM, San Francisco urge caution on SMART METERS for health reasons.
Stunning discussion, if he’s accurate, re:
cell phones, Bluetooth use, risk of brain cancer, variety of neorological risks; avoiding AirPods in favor of corded headphones, suggests turning wi-fi off at night and more.
KGO may put up a podcast of this (not sure, but many radio programs do the day after).
What about our pending Smart Meters!?


Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 15, 2021 at 2:55 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jul 15, 2021 at 2:55 pm

R. Joel Moscovitz of UC Berkeley has a website
saferemr.com
Safety re: electromagnetic radiation safety is focus
Appears legit, serious
Comments, please


Resident11
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on Jul 15, 2021 at 2:57 pm
Resident11, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on Jul 15, 2021 at 2:57 pm

Finally! Palo Alto is in the dark ages when it comes to how we meter. We will finally be able to detect water leaks before the bill comes and price electricity properly. People, this will keep our costs down as well as help us to fight drought and climate change. This should not be remotely controversial. We are way behind on this.

I was wondering when the tin hat group would show up on the thread. Hello there Anonymous. If you really think that cell phones and wifi cause brain cancer there's probably not much I can say to convince you otherwise. But Web Link


Barron Park Denizen
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jul 15, 2021 at 6:23 pm
Barron Park Denizen, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jul 15, 2021 at 6:23 pm

Phil Metz is a smart fellow. His repeated cautions about not having a concrete plan in place are sobering. Email the citizenry about the best times to use electricity and gas--that should cost close to zero. The cost and scarcity of water are already well appreciated. And don't confiscate people's gas service. And avoid hiring new, expensive employees to run all the smart new equipment.

This investment will never pay itself back. Put these funds toward reducing the pension deficit.


Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 15, 2021 at 6:45 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jul 15, 2021 at 6:45 pm

Hilarious! I am not a tin hat person.
I merely stated that on KGO-AM a huge wattage, liberal San Francisco radio station with high national reputation they happened to have on a Ph.D. From UC Berkeley (Public Health area, I believe) TODAY on the Pat Thurston Show, discussing, among other things, updated news about concerns related to cell phones, smart meters, etc. Cited recent analysis of numerous studies. Sounded coherent to me and worth mentioning.
- For this, I get personally attacked.


Roger
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jul 16, 2021 at 6:44 pm
Roger, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jul 16, 2021 at 6:44 pm

Can someone give me details on how smart meters actually help customers? My heater goes on and off as needed and I already know to to use a programmable thermostat and set it low. I already limit electricity use to what I need. I know to charge my car in the morning to use renewable energy before the heat of the day when use spikes. My drip irrigation is on a timer to run a short time in the morning. Will the smart meter shut off my gas, water, or electricity if the AI thinks I am using too much. This appears to be an excuse to go “high tech” with no real benefits. Anyone care to enlighten me?


Moctod
Registered user
University South
on Jul 17, 2021 at 12:12 pm
Moctod, University South
Registered user
on Jul 17, 2021 at 12:12 pm

I have lived with the conversion to these so-called "smart meters" meters and our electric bills tripled. The only way they force you into using electric power when the wholesale rates are lower is by large increases in your rates when you are most likely to want to use that power. I also believe that PG&E uses a three tiered rate system that also doubles over a base usage rate. Also once they install one of these meters they will not allow you to convert back to an analog system.

Also, did you know that Palo Alto charges the biggest users of electricity, commercial users, the lowest rates? They are posted online. If you really want to get green, up their bills. The employees of our city will also not be bothered to change their times of power usage, as they do not pay for city utilities.

This all comes when the city of Palo Alto is transferring millions each year in electric revenues into the general fund without voter approval and I believe they have stopped issuing new residential building permits for homes that use gas. We have an all-electric heating system and turn it down at night. Cold winter days and early evenings are when we want to heat our home. I also do not want to start washing my clothes after 9:00 PM.

The CA Public Utilities Commission provides for an opt-out of these smart meters and continue with a flat rate. There is a one-time charge of $75 ($10 for lower income) and then a monthly rate of $10 ($5 for low income) and that monthly fee expires after three years:

Web Link


A trial run of “smart meters in Palo Alto ended in 2019. As I remember, there were numerous complaints from those that tried the program on a volunteer basis and who, I believed were more inclined to make the sacrifice. The rates were also nowhere near what PG&E charges.


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