“Smart meters aren’t smart enough to solve the emerging challenges our electric, gas, and water grids are facing.”

Copper Labs’ CEO Dan Forman talks about the value of real-time data on the Smart Grid Today podcast.

Copper’s CEO, Dan Forman, was recently featured on the Smart Grid Today podcast. With podcast host Sam Spencer, Dan discusses why the current state of the so-called smart grid doesn’t meet the current needs of utilities and their customers.

“One of the core premises early on with smart meters was that the utility might not need that data in real-time but once every 30-days is too slow, so let’s build networks that can get us the daily data that we need for operations and billing.” The grid is evolving faster than smart grid solutions, so Copper is focused on unlocking real-time data, with or without smart meters.

“Most smart grid deployments or AMI meters offer 15-minute interval data delivered the next day,” explains Dan. “Our thesis is that’s not really sufficient to manage the increasingly unpredictable demand we’re facing on the grid.”

“The grid has changed from a one-way flow, centralized power generation model. Now we’re looking at an increasing mix of distributed energy resources, whether intermittent utility-scale renewables or consumer-sited devices like EV chargers that represent significant demand flexibility. Having visibility into how that affects the grid edge requires real-time visibility.”

Real-time data also allows utilities to engage consumers when it matters most to the grid. A case in point is Copper’s partnership with Holy Cross Energy, a ‘smart grid’ utility with AMI meters.

“They deployed our technology alongside an existing peak time payback program, which sends you an email or an SMS saying, hey, it’s peak time. If you curtail, we’ll offer you this incentive. We’ve seen great performance incrementally above the existing program, including a 2X peak load reduction by having real-time data to engage consumers.”

Enabling utilities to take advantage of their assets now

The grid is becoming more and more decentralized and decarbonized. Utilities are under pressure to use their existing assets to align demand and supply, whether operating on smart infrastructure – or not. 

“Smart grid proposals are being increasingly scrutinized and rejected by regulators because there’s a lot of questions around, ‘Am I replacing assets that still have functional life? Am I going to build new dedicated network infrastructure when broadband is already ubiquitous? That’s going to create new stranded assets that I don’t necessarily need, and what’s the actual value to the consumer?’” explains Dan.

As a result, drive-by AMR is still in use at 25% of US electric utilities. “On the gas side, it’s more than half drive-by because it’s a much more expensive swap to replace a gas meter than an electric meter. If you look at water, which is another area where we’re focused… most of that is still drive-by meter reading,” he adds.

Copper’s technology offers gas and water utilities a shortcut to reaping the benefits of AMI without having to deploy AMI. 

“One of our first commercial deployments was a smart city project here in Colorado called Sterling Ranch. Water rights are a big issue in building new communities, so they were looking for a cost-effective way to access electric, gas, and water meter data. [They have] separate rates for indoor and outdoor water billing. They use [our] platform to manage water demand as we face increasing drought conditions in the West. By monitoring the outdoor watering of your lawn versus indoor, it gives them great flexibility to reach in and flatten that demand without causing hardship.”

Neighborhood level real-time data solutions to supersede utility networks

Even where AMI exists today, it doesn’t necessarily deliver a smarter grid but simply more intelligent metering; the fundamental limitations lie in the nature of the utility networks.

“Most of these smart grid deployments – the networking that’s deployed is not like the big broadband pipe that we’re all using to get Wi-Fi into our homes. It’s a much smaller pipe. It’s meant to handle lower levels of data,” explains Dan. “It’s not going to deliver this real-time intelligence that we’ve come to expect on most of our other IoT devices and other things.”

That’s why Copper Labs is collaborating with network operators to overcome this challenge: “The most interesting thing that we’re working on right now is a version of our hardware deployed out on a pole connected to a dedicated wired or wireless broadband network connection that can collect data from hundreds of homes at the same time at about one-minute intervals.” 

It’s an attractive proposition for utilities struggling to get to the smart grid. “Whether they’ve been approved [for AMI], and they know they have to wait for five years or those that haven’t even yet been approved, we can pull forward those benefits. And by smoothing out the period over which they have to deploy AMI, they can get a lot more for the grid modernization money that they were already going to spend and start getting access to those benefits now.”

Today’s smart grid is not intelligent enough to manage the challenges of a transforming grid – it lacks visibility behind the meter and real-time data to engage targeted consumers and create load flexibility.

Copper Labs delivers an affordable path to a smarter grid by leveraging existing meters – whether AMR or AMI – and existing neighborhood-level data networks.

Listen to the full podcast on Smart Grid Today to learn more about the value of real-time data.