Digital smart meters help ComEd monitor usage and power quality to better assess the effectiveness of recent electric-system improvements and further enhance reliability of electric service.
Digital smart meters help ComEd monitor usage and power quality to better assess the effectiveness of recent electric-system improvements and further enhance reliability of electric service.
Digital smart meters help ComEd monitor usage and power quality to better assess the effectiveness of recent electric-system improvements and further enhance reliability of electric service.
Digital smart meters help ComEd monitor usage and power quality to better assess the effectiveness of recent electric-system improvements and further enhance reliability of electric service.
Digital smart meters help ComEd monitor usage and power quality to better assess the effectiveness of recent electric-system improvements and further enhance reliability of electric service.

ComEd’s Field Workforce Modernizes the Grid

Aug. 27, 2015
By 2018, ComEd will have installed 4 million smart meters and 5,300 distribution automation devices in northern Illinois.

Up until six years ago, ComEd was operating an analog grid in a digital age. Once the utility secured funding for grid modernization, it began installing smart meters and accelerated attaching distribution automation devices to poles and upgrading underground and overhead infrastructure.

The utility first started its smart grid journey in 2009 by installing 130,000 smart meters as a pilot project in its Maywood operating area. Two years later, the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) authorized $2.6 billion in grid modernization with half of the funding directed toward infrastructure improvements and the remainder allocated to smart grid investments such as installing smart meters and smart switches and modernizing substations.

In September 2013, ComEd proceeded with full-scale smart meter deployment. Over the next five years, the utility will install across northern Illinois a total of 4 million UL-certified smart meters from General Electric. As of July, the company has installed 1.3 million of the smart meters and is on the way to modernizing the grid and bringing it up to the digital age.

The IntelliRupter PulseCloser fault interrupter is one element of ComEd’s grid modernization and smart grid program, which is increasing the number of customer circuits served by distribution automation to 90%.

Lessons Learned

Through the smart meter pilot project, ComEd streamlined its deployment plan, identified issues and challenges, and discovered ways to expedite and improve the installation process in the field. For example, the utility learned how to best build a mesh network. Rather than jumping around to different operating regions, the company built out the system from one or two core hubs in concentric circles. This strategy guided the utility’s entire deployment plan.

Perhaps most importantly the utility learned how to better engage and interact with customers and to improve meter installation. An important point is that ComEd owns the meter while the customer is responsible for the socket. Often, the socket is the same age as the structure. For that reason, ComEd trained its installers to inspect the socket for any degraded conditions.

While the meter installers make minor repairs to the sockets, the utility has union electricians on standby; that way, if there are any conditions with the socket that need repair, the electricians can make the repairs on the spot. So far, the electricians have made 6,000 socket repairs. On occasion, when the installers pull the old meter out, they will find that one of the jaws has broken off or corroded, so they repair the socket. As a result, they are trying to leave the customers’ sockets safer than when they arrived.

Retraining Workers

Rather than releasing its meter readers at the completion of the smart grid project, ComEd is offering them the opportunity to enroll in its core line schools. These schools train the future lineman and utility workers. While many of the meter readers are still currently performing manual meter reading on analog meters that have not yet been changed out, the other installers are being repurposed into different roles leveraging their field experience. With the aging of the field workforce, the former meter readers can help ComEd to backfill positions in the field and meet its future labor needs.

While many utilities outsource the meter installation, 75% of the installers are ComEd employees. The utility provides its meter readers with specific training on how to install the meter through two weeks in the classroom and two weeks in the field.

During the training session, the instructors teach the meter readers about what they will encounter in the field — from the diverse ages, conditions and types of meters to safe driving practices and basic electrical principles. The workers also learn how to inspect the meter socket and look for indications of theft, pull out the old meters and safely deal with issues.

The meter readers work under the direct supervision of an experienced installer for one to two weeks. After shadowing the supervisor for a day or two, the trainees install the smart meters themselves. In addition to hands-on, on-the-job experience installing meters, the trainees learn how to interact with the customers during the installation process. ComEd has a robust customer notification process that ends with the knock on the customer’s door. As a result, the experienced installers teach the trainees how to answer the customers’ questions ranging from, “What is a smart meter?” to “Does a smart meter pose any health risks?” or “Why am I getting a smart meter now?” That way, the trainees can learn how to ensure a good customer experience through the entire installation process.

Having the meter readers install the smart meters has been beneficial for the utility and for the customers. The diverse workforce is often reflective of the community it serves, and with bilingual installers on staff, they can easily communicate with the community. The local neighborhoods are accustomed to seeing ComEd employees, and when they see them install the meters, they know that they are doing something good for the community.

In addition, ComEd is partnering with Corex Utilities on the other 25% of the mass deployment. ComEd is also partnering with other vendors to provide support services including MZI Group for specialty meter installation, Quantum Crossings and Durken Electric for electrical repairs, Live Wire for underground raceway repairs and Intren for underground raceway installations. The Chatham Business Association, a small-business resource center on the South Side of Chicago, also helped ComEd to educate its customer base about smart meters.

Because ComEd is installing smart meters assembled in Chicago by General Electric, the company can invite dispatch center employees to visit the assembly plant, which is open 24 hours a day, six days a week. In turn, the smart meter manufacturer employees can tour the utility’s dispatch center. That way, they understand how a meter goes from the assembly line into its final installation spot.

In 2013, ComEd only had four employees dedicated to the smart meter effort, and today, the company has a robust support structure. In order to install the meters safely and keep the customer experience in mind, the utility needed to have that kind of support. ComEd installs between 20,000 and 30,000 smart meters per week.

Getting Linemen Up to Speed

ComEd is training both its meter readers and its linemen on best work practices on smart meters through a multi-tiered approach. In fact, the utility has educated all of its field and office employees about the smart meter program through a companywide awareness campaign. And before the utility goes into a certain operating region to install smart meters, it provides the linemen and troublemen with additional training and materials. For example, in this training, the crews learn about the differences between analog and smart meters, such as the rotating displays.

The training for the linemen does not end at deployment. Instead, ComEd revisits the linemen three to six months after the meters have been installed to teach them how their work practices will change as a result of the new smart meters.

In addition to learning about the smart meters, the linemen also play an integral role in ComEd’s smart grid project. The utility is tasking the field crews with installing devices that serve as data collectors for the meters in the field such as antennas, relays and distribution automation (DA) devices, or self-healing switches, on the poles. As of June 2015, the linemen have contributed to the installation of 439 DA devices, which helped to avoid 693,000 customer power interruptions from all DA devices on the system.

ComEd has installed the DA devices throughout its service territory with the help of two locally based companies: G&W Electric and S&C Electric. By the end of the project, nearly 90% of ComEd’s customers will be protected by DA. When a customer has a power outage on a circuit with DA, the lights may go out, but they almost immediately come back on when the three-phase automatic reclosers automatically reroutes power around potential problem areas.

Before embarking on the smart grid project, ComEd’s 34-kV system was automated with the DA devices, but the 12-kV system had few DA reclosers installed. With investments authorized in 2011 by EIMA, ComEd was able to accelerate the automation of the 12-kV system. The utility has been installing DA devices on 12-kV circuits since 2002 and 2003, but in 2011, it was able to increase the scope of the project and speed up its long-range plan because of EIMA.

In turn, ComEd has been able to minimize the number of customer power interruptions and the number of unnecessary truck rolls. When dispatchers receive a single outage ticket, they can ping meters over a wireless network to check whether they are on or off before they call out a truck. This year alone, ComEd has been able to avoid 5,000 truck rolls. In June, most recently, the utility was able to avoid 100 truck rolls following a storm that left 30,000 customers without power. As such, the linemen were able to focus on those areas that did not have power, thereby expediting restoration.

For example, through meter pinging, one dispatcher was able to determine exactly which switchgear fuse was blown and then send the lineman to the exact location of the malfunctioning switching equipment. In the future, as ComEd’s outage management system will be fully operational, the dispatchers will be even more efficient by automatically dispatching outage tickets.

Future Plans

By installing the smart meters and related infrastructure, ComEd has been able to provide benefits to both its customers and its field workforce. The communications architecture that supports the smart grid devices is creating new opportunities to bring added value to customers and municipalities. In January, ComEd launched its Smart Streetlights pilot project, which involves 700 smart streetlights operating under an AMI network, creating the potential for significant reduction in energy consumption and costs for the municipalities, along with enhanced lighting controls. The utility is further evaluating opportunities to leverage the wireless mesh communications network that runs the smart grid to offer water metering services to municipalities, and it’s exploring the full suite of smart city technologies.

The uses of smart meters has exceeded expectations. Each smart meter contains a disconnect switch, and in the event of an emergency, the dispatchers can disconnect power. In the past, the police or fire departments would call the operations control center, and a troubleman would be dispatched to the location and disconnect power. Now, the utility can respond to emergency calls in real time without even sending a lineman out to investigate the outage in the middle of the night.

By minimizing the frequency and duration of power outages, ComEd can pass on these cost savings to its customers. Through the smart meter deployment, the utility can more easily monitor the electric grid, respond to issues and provide reliable power to its customers by modernizing the grid.

Mike McMahan ([email protected]) is vice president of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) implementation for Commonwealth Edison. He is responsible for AMI deployment and operations throughout the northern Illinois region, including AMI business transformation, customer strategy, AMI field operations and AMI operations.

Seven Steps on ComEd's Path to Grid Modernization

Through its smart grid program, ComEd is replacing analog meters with digital or smart meters for approximately 4 million customers in northern Illinois. The utility is also making other improvements to its system to help improve reliability. An overview of the utility’s grid modernization and improvement plan follows.

  • Installing distribution automation. By automatically rerouting electricity around problem areas, ComEd is reducing the duration and frequency of power outages. From 2012 through June 2015, the utility has avoided 4 million customer interruptions as a result of smart switches.
  • Trimming trees. Through a focus on vegetation management, ComEd can reduce the potential of tree-caused outages. The utility uses trained arborists to trim trees and branches that can potentially interfere with power lines and equipment.
  • Replacing aging equipment. The utility is installing, repairing or replacing equipment to improve power reliability.
  • Avoiding lightning damage. ComEd is installing devices to protect equipment from storm-related damage.
  • Replacing cables. ComEd is investing in a mainline underground cable improvement plan to test and replace high-voltage underground cable that carries electricity from electric substations.
  • Upgrading power lines. ComEd is upgrading overhead power lines with new overhead cables that have a protective coating and are spaced closer together. By installing these power lines in neighborhoods with many trees and frequent power outages, the utility can help to reduce weather-related outages.
  • Burying overhead lines. Linemen are replacing overhead power lines with underground cable to further improve reliability.

ComEd is also refurbishing existing underground cable by injecting an insulation compound into it to protect it from outside side elements.  

Source: Commonwealth Edison

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