In the second year of a five-year, multi-billion-dollar transformation, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is seeking state regulatory approval to upgrade its newly developing smart metering system that the utility is bidding to spread throughout its customer base for both electric and natural gas customers. PG&E asked Jan. 17 for approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which meets this Thursday.

The utility divulged last November that it was changing the technology for its advanced meter replacement program, acknowledging to the financial community that the move will increase the costs of that five-year, $1.7 billion effort to replace more than 10 million electric and natural gas meters.

"The advanced metering industry has come a long way in just a few years," said Helen Burt, PG&E's chief customer officer. "Features that previously were uneconomic or unproven have become cost-effective and more reliable. The upgrade will take an already strong SmartMeter program to the next level. For example, the new devices would support integration of new capabilities and emerging technologies such as [remote] home appliance automation."

Separately, a smart grid technology developed by Southern California Edison (SCE) to help utilities anticipate and halt cascading regional power blackouts received the "Transmission & Distribution Automation Project of the Year" award last Tuesday at the DistribuTECH Conference in Tampa, FL.

Edison's software, which the utility calls Synchronized Measurement and Analysis in Real-Time or SMART, addresses one of the greatest challenges faced by transmission grid operators -- knowing exactly what is happening throughout their widespread power delivery networks and having adequate controls to respond quickly, preventing potential problems before they affect customers.

"Utility customers correctly assume the remarkable advances they see in their computers and communication devices should translate into utility systems that deliver power more reliably," said Jim Kelly, SCE's transmission and distribution vice president of engineering and technical services. "Edison's goal is a power grid as smart as the equipment our customers plug into it."

In its regulatory filing, PG&E is seeking to upgrade its residential meters from the traditional electromechanical analog technology to new solid-state digital meters. Recognizing that the technology will continue to evolve, the CPUC has directed PG&E to regularly monitor emerging meter technologies and consider upgrades to the program.

"In the two years since PG&E filed its first SmartMeter application with the CPUC, the industry has continued to mature and prices for meter devices have decreased while functional capability has increased significantly," Burt said.

Some 240,000 meters were supposed to be changed out by the end of 2007, and PG&E has indicated it will continue on its current pace as it pilot tests a new generation technology that should kick in later in 2008. The bulk of the meters -- more than nine million -- will end up having the newer, two-way communications capability along with allowing for decentralized meter reading without the use of meter readers in the field.

PG&E estimated that future savings from the new meter technology "will more than offset the cost of the initial investment," which it has projected to be $360 million of additional funding from 2009 to 2013.

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