Smart Grid Smart Grid Internally Created

any smart grid, utilities also need technology that ties together many disparate power sources, he said. Renewable energy generation often happens in small amounts over a large area. For example, one can hardly drive through a California suburb without spotting rooftop solar panels. SMUD likes the idea of buying the excess power generated by those panels, Slaton said, but it would need a way to connect and measure the power taken from them. New technology also plays a role in managing the inconsistency of renewable energy sources - for instance, triggering backup power generators when solar panels lack sun.

End of an Era

Moving to a smart grid also spells big changes for municipal utility workers. SMUD's transition to automated meters will eliminate the need for workers to drive to meters and manually record data.

"We started telling our meter readers several years ago that this was coming," Slaton said. "So the hires who we did hire, starting about four years ago, knew these were temporary jobs. This was not going to be career employment as a meter reader."

A large portion of younger workers will transition to other jobs within the utility. An alternative role for these employees could be answering customer service calls about bills or service. Managers of the meter-reading employees will switch to managing call-takers, according to Paul Lau, SMUD's assistant general manager of customer, distribution and technology.

Meter-reader managers currently spend much of their time in the field following up on complaints about unusually high bills and suspected electricity theft. After digital meter installation, these managers will view usage analytics and proactively search for potential problems. The job routine will involve dividing their time between the office and the field. A large number of older managers plan to retire as a result, because they don't want to sit in offices, Lau said. Many of the younger managers, by contrast, welcome the change.

"They say, 'Instead of being in the field all the time, I can do a combo. I can do the analysis, and I can actually run out there and see which ones need follow-up and figure out how I do those investigations,'" Lau said.

Smart meters also will alert SMUD to power outages before citizens report them. Now when outage reports hit SMUD's phone system, technicians in a map room try to deduce where to send repair crews. Frequently SMUD dispatches several trucks to determine exactly which power lines need repair. But with smart meter's accuracy, Slaton said SMUD can quickly determine which equipment needs fixing and can send one crew to fix it.

Developing New Skills

Times are changing for customer service call-takers too. SMUD will train employees on software designed to troubleshoot billing questions. Today when a customer reports an unusually high bill, call-takers normally transfer the complaint to management for investigation. A few days later, the caller receives feedback on what might have caused the high bill. With daily reporting from smart meters, customer service call-takers will do much of the investigative work on the phone with the customer.

"If you have a bill that comes through, you may say to the customer, 'On this date, your usage was much higher than normal. Did you have a party that day? Were you traveling? Were your kids at home or was it an exceptionally hot day?'" Lau said. "In the past, customer service representatives would ask the questions, but they wouldn't have any data in front of them. The customer wouldn't have any data in front of them either."

When customers call to complain about power outages, call-takers will be able to see whether power is flowing to the building. The software also will show which of the customer's neighbors have power. From there, the call-taker can

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.