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The October 19, 2007 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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UPLC Conference: Powerline Communications In the "Lone-Star" State

The focus at this year's UPLC Conference was on utility applications, not broadband services. Utilities are facing an aging workforce, increasing energy demand and the pressure of green initiatives. Communications networks are key to addressing these problems. Many think "home area networks" will play an important role in energy control and demand response. We went to the recent conference to find out what all this means for the future of BPL.

This year's conference took place in Texas -- the "Lone Star" state. Following last year's conference, we wrote that all eyes would be on Texas, watching what happened with the BPL Network being built in the Dallas area by Current Communications for Dallas-based Oncor Electric Delivery (previously called TXU Electric Delivery). Current owns and operates the BPL network, and Oncor buys enhanced utility services from Current.

In the past year, Current and Oncor have passed over 106,000 homes and installed about 60,000 BPL-enabled meters. Oncor has started using the information from the meters to bill its customers and manage its electrical plant.

Current/Oncor Field Visit

Current demo home in Dallas --> Click for larger pictureOncor hosted a field visit to a BPL-enabled home in Dallas, so that conference attendees could have a real-world look at the equipment. We were told that the first bills using data from the new BPL-enabled meters had gone out that week.

Current overhead coupler --> Click for larger pictureWe visited the rear alley of the home to observe the BPL equipment mounted on the poles. We were surprised by the depth of the deployed fiber. The overhead portion of the plant looked largely like a fiber deployment, with BPL used as an auxiliary transport from the fiber injection points into customer homes.

We also visited an apartment complex to see what BPL to a multi-dwelling unit (MDU) deployment looks like and to get a close-up of Current Communications latest couplers for underground wiring.

Monitoring Megawatts by Using Megabytes

CurrentLook detection of fault --> Click for larger pictureInside the house, Current demonstrated its CurrentLook software, which reports on the network elements and their functioning. Back at the office, a team monitors the actionable information which helps isolate the types and locations of suspected problems. This information is used by Oncor operations to deploy the appropriate type of crew to perform the repair. "Monitoring megawatts by using megabytes" is a mantra for Oncor describing their focus on using BPL to manage their physical plant.

"Home Area Networks" and "Smart Meters"

During the field visit and talks at the conference, we heard a new term--the "Home Area Network" or HAN. Not to be confused with the local area network that may be in the home, HAN in this context refers to a "command and control" network infrastructure that allows display of energy use, and control of thermostat settings and energy-using appliances (like pool pumps or air conditioning systems). (We're a little troubled by this usage of "home area network" since the same phrase is more commonly used to refer to a broadband local area network based on Ethernet or Wi-Fi. However, it's likely to gain traction in Texas, since the state has embedded that language into its formal regulatory documents--see below.)

A "smart" electric meter acts as the control point, or home gateway, for communication with these end-point devices with a low-speed communication mechanism such as Zigbee. With two-way communications capabilities, these new meters also allow for remote connect/disconnect of utility customers, depending on their billing status.

A talk by Ed May, Director of Business Development, AMI at Itron--a major supplier of utility meters and supporting infrastructure--described the role of role of home area networks. A smart meter uses the HAN to communicate with endpoints such as thermostats, other utility meters, and smart appliances.

In-home display --> Click for larger picture

Ed's talk included an illustration of an "in-home messaging display" shown above. It provides the consumer with current information about electricity pricing, and enables pre-programmed consumer response to reduce the cost of electrical service.

We've personally become very sensitized to the need for this type of technology. Our electricity cost hit an alarming new high this summer. We didn't use much more electricity, but the utility sharply raised the rate when demand was very high, reflecting their cost of buying electricity. We would certainly be willing to reduce our usage at times of peak demand -- if we had a device like this providing an automated way to raise the thermostat setpoint.

Texas is Driving AMI

Texas has adopted an unbundled model for electrical service, with separate organizations responsible for generation, wholesale transmission and distribution, and retail electrical service. As an example, TXU Corp. is now separated into three business units: Luminant generates electric power; Oncor distributes power to end points (homes and businesses); and TXU Energy is one of many retail electric providers (REPs) competing to sell electricity to end customers.

The Texas Public Utility Commission and legislature have taken the lead in pushing utilities to install an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). Recent legislation required that Advanced Metering services be provided by transmission and distribution utilities. It directed the PUC to establish a surcharge for advanced metering, so that utilities could offset the costs of meter purchase and installation. Other states have been active as well--nearly half of all US states are implementing or piloting technology for demand response and advanced metering.

A talk by Christine Wright, Industry Oversight Division, PUC of Texas, explained the state's rationale: the potential use of smart meters to increase network reliability, their ability to enable demand response and dynamic energy pricing, and their ability to provide data which would let retail energy providers create market differentiation. Requirements for the metering include providing end users and energy retailers with direct, real-time access to meter data. The regulations require smart meters to be able to communicate with devices inside the premises through a home area network.

Utility Focus

In a talk at the conference, Tom Willie, Current's Senior VP Network Engineering & Technology summed up utility interest in BPL into three areas:

  • reading meters;
  • demand response control of home energy usage via smart meters and the home area network; and
  • the "smart grid": capabilities for remote pinpointing of plant problems to enable fast corrective action.

Broadband services to the end-user were conspicuously absent from this list. Willie said utilities divide into two categories: those interested only in utility applications, and those also interested in playing some role in retail broadband services. While a fiber-rich architecture is appropriate for those that want to enable retail broadband, BPL alone will play a more significant role for the others.

The range of bandwidth Current sees as needed for these networks varies from 500kbps to 10 Mbps. Willie sees the low end needing 500 kbps, 2-way, IP-based networks as demand response networks develop.

Role of Communications for Utilities

Other speakers talked about planning for long-term communications requirements. Utility executives are asking questions like "How much is communications a part of my core business?" and "Should I build new or piggyback on someone else's network?"

Mike Quinn, Oncor's Senior Project Manager, had this perspective: "BPL is a utility piece of equipment that is communications-oriented. The big issue for utilities is that the old departmental silos are still ingrained in the culture and communications planning requires these units to work collectively in future planning. The energy distribution function has also been mandated to be separate from the generation business -- another impediment to end-to-end communications."

Who Will Follow Oncor?

We heard very little from utilities on the subject of retail broadband services. Although Oncor's customers will be offered broadband services in the near future, we heard about it mostly from Current. Many utilities seem to think that focus on very high speed creates unnecessary complexity and cost: "I don't need 200 MBps, I need $10". Most of the Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) appear to be focused on how to fix a disruption in a few minutes rather a few days; on how to read meters and turn them on and off remotely; and on how to control energy use to delay the construction of new generation capacity.

Most of the major utilities have already run BPL trials and/or pilots, and have "learned all they need to know". They are waiting for standards and for technology maturity. Perhaps they are also waiting to see how Oncor progresses as their rollouts continue and Current starts marketing its BPL broadband services. We didn't see any rush to be the next US utility to implement end-user broadband services. Perhaps it's fitting that Oncor is in the "Lone Star" state.

Municipal Utilities and Co-ops Are Different

Last year we wrote about International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC), a company focused on implementing BPL for municipal and cooperative utilities that serve largely rural areas. Steve Turner, COO of IBEC, spoke at the conference and said that his customers were still enthusiastic about BPL. Since these utilities are owned by their customers and most of their customers have few (if any) other options for broadband, their BPL focus is still on retail broadband services.

IBEC had previously received a $19.2M loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service (RUS) to deploy its BPL solution to the underserved residents of rural America, and has been waiting for FCC approval to start deploying its newest products. Shortly after the conference, Steve informed us that their products had just been certified by the FCC. With this in place, IBEC will proceed with the rural deployments it had previously initiated.

Standards Are Key

We have written before about the issue of BPL standards, which is still unresolved. Utilities are loath to make big commitments to BPL in the absence of standards. As Gary Steubing, Systems Integration Manager - PL Communications, Duke Energy Corporation (last year's UPLC conference host) said: "We don't care what the standard is, we just want one." At this year's conference, we heard some optimism: "significant progress" according to some, "resolution in the next year" according to Tom Willie.

The IEEE P1901 standards committee is working on the standard for BPL. The group met in Boston earlier this week, and we're waiting to hear the outcome.

Effects From the Outside

Recent events outside the utility industry may have an effect of the future of BPL. The first is EarthLink's pullback from the BPL market. Last year EarthLink was one of BPL's biggest advocates and was going to serve as the retail ISP working with Duke and potentially other utilities. Earthlink's deteriorating financial situation has changed that commitment.

The second factor is Current Communications deal with DirecTV. DirecTV will be able to offer its customers high-speed Internet and voice services carried by Current Group over electric power lines, as early as the end of 2007. Initial coverage will be in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area for 1.8 million homes and businesses. DirecTV will be able to expand this offer to other U.S. markets as Current builds out its network.

DirecTV provides a strong marketing arm for distribution of broadband services. The company has been looking for ways to integrate additional services with their video offers in order to better compete with cable companies.

This is a long story--and it is not over yet. We'll have to wait and watch.

For More Information

See SmartGrid: The Road to BPL? (BBHR 10/17/06) for our report on last year's UPLC conference, and Topical Index: Broadband Access to the Home: Powerline (BPL) for all our writing on this subject.

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