First Integrated Smart Grid Helps to Better Manage Water and Utility Use

Glendale, Calif., is one of the first jurisdictions in the U.S. to combine both smart electricity and smart water meters into a “smart grid.” What have they learned thus far?

by / June 23, 2015
In California, Glendale Water and Power, shown above, began implementing its smart grid in 2010, eventually replacing all 88,000 electric and 35,000 water meters in the city with smart meters. Flickr/y3110w

Digital, or “smart” electric meters are the norm in many cities today. But digital water meters are not as common. Combining both is even more rare.

Glendale, Calif., is reportedly the first U.S. city to implement both water and electric meters as part of an effort to develop a smart grid — a system that capitalizes on technology to track energy and water use. Such smart grids may eventually help cities provide citizens with reliable, sustainable water and power while simultaneously helping them conserve natural resources and manage energy costs.

Glendale Water and Power (GWP) began implementing its smart grid in 2010. The $70 million project was partially subsidized by federal and state grants, including a Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The grants helped GWP replace all 88,000 electric and 35,000 water meters with smart meters.

Today, Glendale’s smart grid is helping the city better manage its utilities day to day, as well as more effectively respond to unplanned challenges such as the current California drought.

Using the smart grid, GWP General Manager Steve Zurn said the city can easily see how much water they are consuming on a daily basis, compare that to consumption a year ago, and see how they are doing in relation to California Gov. Brown’s mandated 20 percent water reduction.

The city also is saving money on the manpower normally required to manually check traditional water meters as the smart grid automatically alerts them to leaks or unusual consumption.

“The smart meters allow us to set certain parameters and alarms, so if anything unusual occurs, like someone suddenly using a huge amount of water at 3:00 a.m., or no electricity being used at a residence we know is currently occupied, the system alerts us and we can investigate,” said Zurn. 

Glendale’s smart grid also allows the city to transmit information back to its customers in real time to encourage them to better manage their own utilities.

That information can be integrated with other smart applications, Zurn said, "whether those are thermostats, energy efficient appliances, their irrigation systems, etc. Then they can personally monitor their usage on a daily basis.”

The city is currently piloting the Smart Customer Mobile engagement program, which offers customers a mobile app to better manage their energy and water usage via phone, tablet or website. The app delivers real-time usage information and two-way communication between the customer and GWP, and allows GWP to monitor real-time information on the data and predict customer behavior. The city is also piloting a home display with Ceiva that allows residents to monitor their water and energy use.

So far, the city has not used the smart grid to determine water over usage penalties for residents, though Zurn said that could potentially change depending on how much longer and more serious the drought becomes.

“Most agencies don't want to start having to fine citizens or take aggressive action against them for using too much water,” he said. “But if it comes down to that, we can use the system to determine when people are watering or not watering. For example, residents are currently allowed to water on Tuesdays and Thursdays. With the smart meters we can tell if they’re watering on another day.”

Zurn said most residents have expressed support for smart grid program, though there was some resistance at first.

“There was some concern when these meters first went in about how much we were going to be using the data and what we were going to be using it for,” he said. “We’ve reassured residents that this is not about us watching what they are doing, it’s about the city doing things smarter.”

For example, city officials can use the smart grid to examine whether certain parts of the city have different habits and needs, and then make adjustments as needed.

“We can see where our biggest electric and water consumers are – are they single family residences, is it commercial, is it downtown commercial, is it industrial commercial? Then you can begin to set parameters anywhere you want them and crunch data and maybe put in a marketing effort specific to that sector of the city to try to educate and expand awareness about conservation.”

On the electric side, the city is currently testing an outage management system that allows them to pinpoint where an outage occurs. They can then redirect electricity or close certain infrastructure and open others from a remote location – processes that normally would have to be done manually.

“Where typically you would have to wait for a crew to go out and fix an outage, we can get the process started remotely and get power restored almost immediately to the affected homes until we can actually find out the exact cause and make a repair,” he said.

The city is also piloting a voltage regulation system that connects substations and meter systems, allowing them to regulate the voltage going into houses to potentially save energy.

“By regulation we have to have voltage at a certain level,” Zurn explained. “Often, we’ll be conservative and keep it at a higher level, even though it may not be necessary for a constant period of time to have that much going in. The smart grid allows you to regulate the voltage, so just what's needed goes in, while still staying within the regulatory parameters.”

Zurn said the city is still just scratching the surface of what they can do with the smart grid. Other initiatives will depend on budget, customer demand, and what's most effective in meeting the city’s mission.

Other cities considering a similar system should first weigh the benefits in relation to the cost to determine if it makes sense, Zurn said, adding that whether this type of smart grid system can help other cities really depends on a lot of different factors.

“It isn’t cheap, but you can reduce costs in other places by putting meters in," he said. "Cities should definitely go through an exercise in due diligence to see if it's best for them.”

Justine Brown Contributing Writer