Smart Grid Deployment Impacts Field Workforce

July 1, 2012
Lakeland Electric retrains its meter reading workforce after smart grid deployment.

Like many other electric utilities, Lakeland Electric is eliminating many of its meter reading positions following its smart grid deployment. Since the Lakeland, Florida, utility now has two-way communication with the meters and is able to communicate with them every two to four hours, it no longer needs to send someone out to customers' homes.

Instead of laying off this part of its field workforce, however, the utility has found a way to transition all of these employees into other positions. These new positions give them additional training and, with some, the possibility of even a higher-paying job than a meter reader.

In addition, the smart grid deployment is affecting the field service and meter shop professionals. Now instead of just an electromechanical meter, they must now contend with a more complex electronic meter. In addition, the utility is training them on how to communicate with handheld, laptop or desktop computers through the network. Lakeland Electric is also instructing these professionals on how to obtain information from these meters in order to service and maintain them effectively.

Training Technicians

Lakeland Electric is training its employees on new and different skills in order to use the available technology. For example, even though two meters may look similar, they may not have been programmed in the same way.

As part of the smart grid deployment, the technicians must learn all the capabilities for all the different meters. For example, today's smart meters have a time-of-use and kilovolt-amp meter all rolled into one. In addition, they don't need to have a separate meter for photovoltaic installations because the smart meters can handle two-way power.

Lakeland Electric has trained the field professionals about the smart meters through on-the-job training, classroom seminars and hands-on experiments in the meter shop. During these training sessions, they learn what a smart meter does, and how it functions and performs. In many cases, the vendor will go out into the field with the employees to demonstrate the features and functions of the meters.

Altering Work Methods

The most significant challenge has not been the technology but rather adapting to the changes in work processes. Since the technicians no longer need to visit the meters to read them, they can remotely send out a command to the meter. In turn, this has changed the way they acquire the data and send it in.

For example, the trouble trucks are accustomed to pulling a meter, setting it aside and then putting it back in after a house fire. When they do that, the utility is still trying to communicate with the meters. If the device doesn't immediately respond, then the utility tracks the device as a stolen meter.

This was important before, but it is even more critical now. Any activities or movement of the meter need to be input into Lakeland Electric's meter data management and customer information systems immediately. If there is a delay in paperwork, it will start to cause alarms. The field workforce has had to learn about this change in handling the meters, and they have accepted it well.

At this point, there is about an 85% rollout of the meters, so it is becoming more routine for them. It is a work in progress, however, as the utility is also in the midst of upgrading its mobile workforce capabilities. As the utility rolls out the smart meters, it has faced a challenge because the mobile workforce software isn't able to adapt to the smart meter information. Since it's no longer recorded by hand, field technicians need to enter that information out in the field through computers and the associated software.

Tracking Outages

One of the significant advantages of the smart grid technology for the field workforce is that it ties in with the outage management system. That way, if there is a loss of power, the meters will notify the utility that they are out of power; they then don't need to wait for customers to make a phone call. In turn, the utility won't have the gaps that it might have if different groups don't call in.

This gives the linemen the capability of serving their customers more quickly and efficiently. For example, say a line is down and 500 people are out of power. The linemen may think they've restored all of the customers so they return to the shop. Later on, however, they get another call saying that there are still customers who haven't been restored, and they must return to the field. At that point, the linemen may become frustrated because of the wasted travel time and inability to completely satisfy the customer.

Using the smart meter technology and the outage management system, however, the utility can identify outages more quickly within the energy control group. If a transformer is still out of service, they can identify the problem and resolve it quickly and efficiently.

Installing and Maintaining Meters

Scope Services is handling the majority of the installations for Lakeland Electric, while the company's internal meter shop is handling the more complex jobs. Scope Services hired local workers and three retired Lakeland employees to work on the project. With their extensive knowledge about the utility's system, the retired workers were a valuable asset to the job.

The company is now 15 months into a 22-month meter deployment. The utility's schedule calls for all the smart meters to be installed by the end of the year, which will make for 124,000 residential, commercial and industrial electric meters that will be swapped out.

The installing company is taking all of the electromechanical meters and selling them to salvage. Lakeland is retaining all of the electronic and AMR meters and selling them to a third-party market.

Over the last 15 years, Lakeland Electric installed 13,000 AMR meters with one-way communications. The utility is now working on swapping out these meters with new technology. It is installing single-phase meters from Sensus and three-phase meters from General Electric, Sensus and Elster.

By installing the smart meters, the utility will do a better job of load research and forecasting. The company will be able to predict where it needs to upgrade its distribution lines. In the past, a lot of this was done based on statistical data and loads. Now that the company has actual loads of every line and branch, it will be able to decide what needs to be upgraded.

In turn, the linemen will be doing smaller projects, but the jobs will be more diverse. Instead of upgrading an entire line, they will only need to upgrade a certain section of the line. As a result, Lakeland Electric's linemen will be able to be more productive, and the utility will be in tune with the smart grid technology of the future.

Randall L. Dotson ([email protected]) is the manager of smart grid operations for Lakeland Electric, a department of the city of Lakeland, Florida. In his previous position, he supervised the transmission and distribution engineering group. Prior to joining Lakeland Electric, Dotson spent 25 years at Florida Power Corp. in substation operations, engineering and management. He is a professional engineer.

Companies mentioned:

Elster |

General Electric |

Lakeland Electric |

Scope Services Inc. |

Senus |

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