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SmartMeters help PG&E pinpoint power outages for better service

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POSTED November 20, 2011 10:23 p.m.

PG&E hasn’t yet discovered a way to prevent Mother Nature from blasting its electrical system every winter with wind, rain and snow, disrupting tens of thousands of customers across its vast, 70,000-square-mile service area.

But thanks to a little-known feature of its new SmartMeters, the utility now has a way to restore power to customers more quickly and effectively than ever before.

This industry-leading capability should serve PG&E customers well as California enters the 2011-12 storm season.

As most customers know by now, the advanced meters communicate their energy usage information periodically, throughout the day. This feature empowers customers to see and thus better manage their energy consumption to save money.

But the meters’ two-way communication capabilities also tell PG&E another vital bit of information: whether your power is on at all. In fact, if power fails at your home or business, the meter sends an alarm—a “last gasp” distress signal—back to the utility.

In the old days — from the beginning of electric service until about last year — utilities had few ways to learn of outages until customers informed them by pony express, carrier pigeon or telephone. PG&E still counts on customers, as well as first responders, calling up to report outages and hazardous downed lines.

But now, even before those calls start coming in, PG&E’s grid operators see icons pop up on their displays where SmartMeters  signal power failures. If it’s 2 a.m. and customers are asleep, blissfully unaware of the outage, operators can still dispatch a crew to fix the problem before they know it.

When big storms strike, trees toppling onto electrical lines may damage circuits at multiple points. In the past, PG&E repair crews never knew for sure whether they had restored the entire circuit or just one part. Individual customers might still be without power due to local problems.

With data from the meters, PG&E can now pinpoint the likely source and extent of outages much more quickly, so the proper resources can be sent to the right places. And once the basic work is done, PG&E can “ping” meters in an entire district to make sure everyone has service  —without having to call customers one by one to check.

“Our ability to ‘clear’ those outages that have been restored will significantly improve customer satisfaction and our ability to dispatch crews more efficiently,” said Ben Almario, who manages PG&E’s response to storm emergencies. “That way we can focus on the needed work that’s still out there.”

Based on the success of the improved outage notification system during storms in March and September, “This is ready for prime time,” said Barry Anderson, senior director of distribution system operations at PG&E. “We have a lot more to do but have cracked the nut on how to make this work for the benefit of our customers.”

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