FirstEnergy has chosen Itron to provide more than 2 million smart meters and its OpenWay smart grid platform for its four Pennsylvania-based utilities.

Metropolitan Edison, Pennsylvania Electric, Pennsylvania Power and West Penn Power will all receive Itron smart meters and a platform that was developed by Itron and Cisco, which is based on an IPv6 network architecture, capable of handling far more smart meter data than traditional architectures.

“These aren’t metering networks,” said Sharelynn Moore, VP of corporate marketing and communications at Itron. “These are smart grid networks. FirstEnergy is investing in architectures that will stand the test of time to support applications beyond meters.”

The metering contract, one of the largest since ARRA stimulus funds were being issued for smart grid projects, is part of FirstEnergy’s compliance with Pennsylvania’s Act 129, which requires the major utilities to install smart meters and also calls for other efficiency measures. Most other large utilities in Pennsylvania have already started their smart meter deployments.

*Largest smart meter deployments in Pennsylvania, GTM Research

In a 2012 filing, FirstEnergy estimated the costs for the four utilities over the twenty-year lifecycle of the deployment plan would be about $1.2 billion. The potential savings is expected to be about $400 million. Most of the savings will come from meter reading, but also through streamlined back-office operations and customer accounting.

The digital smart meters will comply with Act 129’s requirements, such as enabling time-of-use pricing, demand response capabilities, theft detection, net metering and enabling outage management. But the OpenWay system will also allow for distribution automation capabilities.

“The key for FirstEnergy is that, while we can meet all the specifications [of Act 129], they’ll have the multi-service applications as their business evolves,” said Moore.

Some of the leading uses of advanced metering data are outage management and voltage optimization, according to GTM Research. As part of Act 129 compliance, FirstEnergy will use the meters for voltage monitoring and for outage management, but that may be just the beginning.

Itron has increasingly been looking beyond the meter, former GTM Research smart grid analyst Zach Pollack noted last fall. “Itron's transformation reflects foresight that will pay dividends,” he wrote at the time.

Those dividends are paying off with the large contract with FirstEnergy. The contract is the first large-scale deployment in North America where Cisco’s IPv6 network has been deployed from day one of the project. With BC Hydro, which chose Cisco and Itron, the network was migrated from the existing mesh network to Cisco’s grid routers and upgraded to the IPv6 network. Some of Itron and Cisco’s other utility clients include Duke EnergyLos Angeles Department of Water and PowerHong Kong’s China Light & Power and National Grid.

For future applications, the open architecture is critical. “To provide a multi-service, multi-vendor and multi-application network, we needed a standard [that we could] make available to welcome other industry participants to plug and play into the network,” said Moore.

Moore would not provide additional details about some of the other grid vendors that were involved in the FirstEnergy project, but said there were some participants already on board.

The confidence in open systems and a system built for yet-to-be-defined applications is very different from metering networks that were deployed just a few years ago, which often picked individual vendors for each specific purpose, rather than investing in a network. Many utilities found that metering networks that could supposedly be used for distribution automation did not meet the requirements to actually support those applications.

“There are a lot of lessons learned from previous deployments,” Moore said. Itron’s project managers bring years of experience that can help the four utilities navigate OT and IT convergence and business change management as it applies to Itron’s technology. Accenture will provide top-level consulting for FirstEnergy’s metering project.

“The industry really was hungry for a true architecture that can be multi-purpose, full-scale [and] that is open and interoperable,” said Moore. “The world’s networking giant has the right capacity to deliver that for smart grid.”

Unlike multi-million-unit metering projects funded by stimulus dollars, the FirstEnergy deployment will take five years, likely starting later this year and going through the end of 2019.

Although metering contracts this large will be rare in North America, “the tipping point is here,” said Moore. “Utilities are placing their bets and moving forward with technology.”

In other Itron news, the company was chosen by solar solar company Clean Power Financing to provide metering for solar installations across the country.