Cali Utilities: Get Ready to Give Your Customers Smart Meter Data!

California’s big utilities have some tough deadlines to meet to give their customers the useful — if at times potentially unwelcome — energy usage data being collected by the millions of smart meters they’re deploying across the state. In a largely overlooked ruling, the California Public Utilities Commission said in December that Pacific Gas & Electric (s PCG), Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have until the end of 2010 to give their customers — and approved third parties, which could include Google (s GOOG), Microsoft (s MSFT) or other makers of energy data portals — smart meter data that the utilities have collected in their back office servers.

But that’s not all — by the end of 2011, the CPUC wants the big investor-owned utilities to provide customers and approved third parties with “near real time” data from smart meters. Given that smart meters typically send their data back to utility offices in 15-minute to hourly increments and send it back to Web portals at least a day later, getting real-time data to customers could require turning on the so-called “home area network” connections that link smart meters to in-home devices via wireless networks.

Sounds like California utilities have a whole lotta work ahead of them over the next months. But, first off, remember the CPUC actually has yet to define the specifics of what it is demanding from California’s big investor-owned utilities. The commission proceeding at issue is ongoing, and the next step will be a workshop in San Francisco on March 10. Opening comments for those workshops are due March 5, and should yield some interesting reading — particularly on the potential definitions of “near real time” data.

However, for Google — one of the IT giants that’s jumped into home energy management with its PowerMeter platform — this CPUC process is “a hugely important proceeding that will determine how the ecosystem in this space evolves,” said Michael Terrell, Google’s policy counsel. “Just because smart meters are being deployed does not mean that people will have good access to the information generated by those meters.”

Of course, almost every smart meter deployment underway in California, and across the U.S., envisions two-way communications between smart meters and their customers. But there’s a big difference between promising it and making it happen in real-time in the real world.

Home Area Network Hurdles

For example, while PG&E has deployed several million smart electric meters so far, and plans to have 10 million smart gas and electric meters in the field by 2011, none have had their home area network (HAN) capabilities turned on yet. Why aren’t the ZigBee chipsets in the smart meters being activated, asks Terrell.

In response, utilities have pointed to the fact that HAN standards are still being worked out, with the National Institute for Standards and Technology set to deliver some guidelines this year. The same issue applies to data that’s collected by utilities and sent back to customers — NIST has been working on a set of standards for that as well.

There are also cost considerations. PG&E was seeking federal grants to run an 80,000-customer HAN pilot this year, but didn’t get the money, and is now planning to do a scaled-back HAN pilot some time in 2011 — the same year that CPUC would appear to be asking the utility to provide every customer with HAN connectivity.

As for getting data from utility servers back to customers, that also isn’t so simple. Beyond technology compatibility concerns, there are matters of keeping customer data private and ensuring that third parties like Google are verified by customers to get the data. So far, Google’s utility partners have signed up only a few thousand customers to test PowerMeter — a sign, perhaps, of the complexities involved.

Utilities Making Progress

Terrell pointed out that utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric, which has been testing Google’s PowerMeter with its customers and will soon launch Google’s tool to more of its customers, are preparing systems for porting data to customers and approved third parties. SDG&E will also launch its own energy web portal for customers some time in late 2010, and has plans for a “Customer Energy Network” (CEN) service to allow multiple third parties to access next-day energy data, starting with standards developed with third parties, and then migrating to an open standard when it’s defined. PG&E, on the other hand, has asked the CPUC to allow it to delay its own “Automated Data Exchange” clearinghouse until national standards are developed, Terrell noted.

Things are also moving a bit more quickly in Texas, where the state utility commission has asked utilities to create a common web portal and data repository to make next-day energy usage data available to customers this year, Terrell said. Because the state has a deregulated energy market, utilities that generate and transmit power have to allow customers to choose from many different retail power providers, putting more pressure on utilities to be able to share data more quickly. According to the Houston Chronicle, the portal,, is set to go online this month.

Embrace the Customer

It could benefit utilities to provide real-time energy data and a wide range of tools to its customers, just for the sake of good relations. PG&E’s first experience with smart meter energy data and customers has been a sobering one — customers in Bakersfield, Calif. have sued the utility, claiming their power bills skyrocketed beyond reason after smart meters were installed. PG&E insists that hot weather and a newly implemented tiered rate structures are to blame, and the CPUC has ordered a third-party audit of the smart meter system.

There are signs that the smart meter backlash is spreading beyond California — Duke Energy is being ordered by Indiana regulators to justify the costs of an 800,000 smart meter deployment in that state, and Dominion Virginia Power is delaying a $600 million smart meter rollout to do more testing, after state regulators questioned whether the meters will cost customers more in increased rates than they will help them save in reduced energy usage. Better relations, more transparency can only help with those hurdles.

Image courtesy of Star Guitar’s photostream Flickr Creative Commons.