Texas Road Trip

We Hit the Road with Oncor to Discuss Its Smart Initiatives

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine January/February 2010

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LAST ISSUE, WE TALKED WITH ONCOR ABOUT ITS CYBER SECURITY WORK in order to prepare for a smarter grid. This issue, I wanted to take some time to discuss Oncor's broader smart grid efforts. Late last fall, I had the incredible opportunity to take a smart grid road trip with Oncor. The road trip not only cut across the wide open Texas landscape, but also across the many groups who play critical roles in executing on Oncor's Smart Texas efforts - from smart meter installation crews to Oncor's smart grid strategists to personnel operating the company's mobile experience center (MEC). Here's a quick rundown of the trip.

8:00 A.M.: DOWNTOWN DALLAS

I started the day at Oncor's headquarters chatting with Jim Greer, senior vice president, asset management and engineering, and Mark Carpenter, vice president and chief information officer, about Oncor's Smart Texas strategies. In terms of what smart grid means, Carpenter pointed out that ''smart grid for Oncor is not any one thing. We really are taking devices, putting in communications networks, bringing data back from those networks and turning the data into useful information.'' Greer said, ''It's OK to have multiple definitions for smart grid because each utility, each jurisdiction is going to have different priorities. What they're going to need is different, and therefore their systems will be different. We're moving forward on the areas that make the most sense for us.''

The areas that Oncor has chosen to tackle cut across the utility company, from smart meters to transmission and distribution networks. Carpenter noted that Oncor began adding to the intelligence of its distribution networks by moving digital technologies in substations out onto the distribution network. Communications networks were critical in this effort, and Oncor is bringing together a variety of networks for its smart grid deployment but still has a ways to go. ''We haven't built the Cadillac yet,'' said Carpenter. ''We're in between a bicycle and a Cadillac.''

11:00 A.M.: DALLAS SUBURBS

After finishing up with Greer and Carpenter, I moved from strategy discussions to technology deployments. I went to a south Dallas suburb and joined a crew to see the smart meter installation process in action (see photos above). Not only did the installers install smart technologies, but also they used smart technologies to aid with the deployment. A quick scan of the new meter with a handheld device ensured that the right meter went with the right house. After a quick Tex-Mex lunch with the installation guys (who knew barbecue enchiladas could be so good), I headed off to Waco to tour Oncor's MEC.

2:00 P.M.: PIT STOP AT WILLIE'S PLACE IN CARL'S CORNER, TEXAS

Although Willie's Place included a full-service truck stop, cafe, theater and saloon, that's not why I stopped there. I stopped off to conduct a phone interview with Charles Elk, director of customer operations for Oncor. Elk provided valuable insight into one of Oncor's in-home device pilot projects that he helped deploy-and participate in. Elk was enamored with the in-home device when he first received it, but then it just became an everyday part of his life, in a good way. The device helped Elk make the connection between what he did in his house and how it impacted his energy use, such as the power that the 10 lightbulbs around his bathroom mirror really consumed (which was more than he thought). Once he got the hang of the system, he didn't have to rely on it nearly as much. He now knew what he needed to do to conserve energy. ''I have a busy life and I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my energy consumption,'' said Elk. ''But it is like eating well, you have to work it into your life.''

3:00 P.M.: HEART OF TEXAS FAIR IN WACO, TEXAS

Among the funnel cakes (my personal favorite) and carnival games, there was a lot to distract you at the Heart of Texas fair. The folks at Oncor had to come up with something pretty enticing. Bring on the MEC, a 53-foot mobile classroom packed with 1,000 square feet of interactive videos and real-world demonstrations for Oncor's customers. ''We try to put everything in perspective for the consumer in a way that they can understand. Like putting energy savings and carbon emissions reductions in terms of new trees planted,'' said Debbie Moore, communications support coordinator with Oncor. And it seems to be working. ''People walk into the MEC with anything from a neutral bias to being quizzical or skeptical about Smart Texas,'' said Greer. ''And the biggest problem, in a good way, is that they walk out and say, 'I want a smart meter.'''

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