Pacific Gas & Electric has one of the country’s most aggressive smart grid plans -- and, with the challenges it’s facing on the edges of its grid, it had better.

The Northern California utility has more customer-owned rooftop solar PV systems on its grid than any U.S. utility, and it’s expecting to be one of the biggest supporters of customer-owned plug-in electric vehicles when (or if) that market takes off.

It’s also in a state that’s leading the nation in renewable energy integration mandates, which means lots of intermittent wind and solar power that’s hard to handle using traditional grid tools. Add to that a statewide grid energy storage mandate that could see an unprecedented number of battery systems being installed over the coming years, and we’re talking a lot of new technology to integrate.

PG&E just released its 2013 smart grid annual report (PDF), which lays out a set of state-mandated metrics on its progress toward its many  goals. In the meantime, PG&E executives and researchers showed off the work underway on current and future challenges during a tour of the utility’s San Ramon Technology Center last week, providing a useful window into how this utility is pushing the envelope on putting all these pieces together.

From Remote Meter-Reading to Integrated Grid Insight

Let’s start with PG&E’s advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which includes networked natural gas meters from Aclara and electricity meters from Landis+Gyr and General Electric (GE) networked by Silver Spring Networks (SSNI). That $2.2 billion project is now in the final stages of rolling out nearly 10 million smart electric and gas meters to its customers.

PG&E has had its share of missteps along the way, particularly in integrating those meters into operations from outage management to customer service. The good news is that its AMI networks are now running well, with interval data collection rates reaching 99.92 percent for Silver Spring’s electric meters and 99.66 percent for Aclara’s gas meters, Kevin Dasso, PG&E’s director of technology and information strategy, pointed out during last week’s San Ramon facility tour.

In the meantime, PG&E is expanding its smart meter uses beyond customer billing, with one of its first functions centered on outage management. Since late 2011, the utility has been getting “last-gasp” notices from meters that lose power, and then “pinging” them to find out when power is restored.

That’s important, because right now, the only way utilities know whether the power is back on is phone calls from individual customers. So far, PG&E credits its AMI outage integration with helping it avoid about 6,000 “truck rolls,” or outage crew dispatches, from July 2012 through June 2013.

But what if customers aren’t at home or at work or are sleeping when the power goes out? Ryan Hanley, manager of technology and integration, showed off a digital map last week at PG&E’s distribution operations test lab, on which the number of red dots, representing customer outage calls, was far outweighed by blue dots, representing meters that had reported themselves as lacking power.

After a year or so of work, PG&E is confident that it’s separating false meter outage reports from real ones, allowing outage restoration crews to roll without customer corroboration, he said. That can help both in fixing everyday outages faster, before customers start complaining, or during emergencies, when call centers and utility crews are being flooded with work and need additional data to prioritize it.

Connecting customers with technology, information, pricing options

One of the key benefits of smart meters is to connect individual customers to their energy usage information. That can come from utility back-office systems via web pages or mailed reports, or from the ZigBee radios inside smart meters via a home area network (HAN).

On the back-end side, PG&E has had its web portals up and running since 2011, and so far nearly 1.6 million customers, or 31 percent of the total, have used it at least once in the past twelve months. But only 81,000, or about 2 percent, have used it to enroll in a PG&E energy information program -- a low figure that's fairly standard for utility customer opt-in programs, but still far from ideal.

And that’s a lot compared to how many customers are getting energy data directly from their smart meter HANs. PG&E has been piloting home-to-meter connectivity for some time, and last year joined California’s other big investor-owned utilities to allow customer-purchased devices to connect to its ZigBee smart meter networks. But as of mid-year, only 364 customers had registered such third-party devices with PG&E, according to its 2013 report.

Even so, PG&E is mandated to increase its capacity for HAN connectivity to manage 25,000 customers this year and 200,000 by next year, Arthur Anderson, who leads the Emerging Technology Laboratory at the San Ramon facility, said last week. That’s because PG&E wants to expand the HAN to cover all kinds of different devices and programs, Dasso said.

That includes using the HAN to connect the 160,000 customers signed up for PG&E’s air-conditioning-based direct load control program, he said. That old-school form of demand response, which sends out one-way radio signals to turn AC compressors off to reduce peak loads, doesn’t provide the utility any feedback, something that the two-way smart meter network could help provide.

Nor have these one-way direct control programs proven particularly popular with the public. That’s pushing more utilities like PG&E to offer pricing programs that incentivize peak load reduction in more customer-friendly ways -- and while they're not smart-meter-enabled and HAN-enabled right now, they’re meant to be in the future.

For example, PG&E has more than 120,000 customers in its SmartRate critical peak pricing program, which now sends customers day-ahead warnings via phone and email alerts -- though PG&E is spending $12 million to pilot a version that sends messages through its smart meter HAN networks. Another 872,000 customers are receiving home energy reports from Opower, which has also launched a pilot with Honeywell to bring connected smart thermostats to a small group of PG&E test customers.

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Tags: california, grid edge, pg&e, smart meters