in early 2000, US-based MU Net began utility trials of a new gateway device called WebGate. Eighteen months on, some 18 utilities across the USA are trialing the device, and some are already looking to expand the deployment of the technology in their service territory.

Figure 2. Utilities are looking for ways of enhancing customer service in competitive markets.
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The 18 utilities include large investor-owned utilities such as Northeast Utilities and Detroit Edison, small municipal utilities, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The extent to which each utility is deploying the WebGate technology varies, but each is seeking a way to improve their cost-efficiency and customer service in today’s competitive, deregulated power markets.

The WebGate system gives utilities a way of tapping the residential customer market through the internet to supply services and collect data on customers. By using an Internet Protocol (IP) gateway device located within a household’s electricity meter, the system establishes a secure two-way communication pathway between the customer and the utility that allows the utility to not only monitor and record energy use in the home, but also offer a range of additional services to the homeowner.

The 18 US utilities are presently deploying WebGate for advanced automatic meter reading (AMR) and energy management applications, but the real potential with gateway technology lies in the customer service enhancements that can, or could in the future, be offered. Utilities can not only enhance existing services, but could also use the technology to offer entirely new services, such as security services, high speed internet access, and monitoring and control of household appliances.

Unique services

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The combination of deregulation and tight supply margins in several power markets around the world this year are causing utilities to seek ways of enhancing their energy management capabilities and customer relations. Deregulation in particular requires utilities to form a close bond with their customers and offer them unique, tailored services that set them apart from their competitors. Utilities need to work harder to win and retain customers, and advanced technology, such as gateway devices, is helping them to do this.

Another factor that Lexington, Massachusetts-base MU Net hopes will drive the uptake of its WebGate technology is the availability of broadband connectivity. According to John Sparkman, vice president of sales and marketing for MU Net, it is estimated that some 60 per cent of homes in the USA are currently passed by some form of broadband access. It is widely believed that in the next three to five years this figure will reach 100 per cent.

MU Net’s gateway technology therefore uses standard TCP/IP protocol over existing networks, making the technology and its applications economically feasible by avoiding the need to install single purpose narrow bandwidth networks. The cost to utilities of obtaining frequent detailed metering information and performing energy management function is therefore lowered.

Wide deployment

Although several types of gateway device are already available on the market in the US, these are predominantly consumer-driven or are deployed primarily as entertainment portals, according to Sparkman. This means that the technology is not universally deployed and is of limited, or little use to utilities.

WebGate differs from other products on the market in that it is intended to be a device for utilities to deploy widely in order to offer a range of services to residential or commercial consumers. As it requires its own connection to the internet and does not rely on the homeowner being a subscriber to an internet service, it can also become a household’s sole internet connection point, giving utilities the opportunity to offer its customers high speed internet access.

MU Net was founded just four years ago and began to deploy WebGate in utility trials in early 2000. The WebGate system for the residential market (IRIS) and for the commercial market (ICIS) consist of three main components: the WebGate gateway, WebBot central control software and HomeHeartBeat, a tool which allows the utility to deliver information to the consumer.

Open standards

The WebGate IP gateway is the device that sits in the home and creates a business-quality, utility-owned gateway to the consumer. It uses standards-based open architecture and communication protocols, including HTML and XML, and is usually installed under the glass of the electricity meter. The gateway consists of the following elements:

  • Metrology: MU Net is not a metrology company and so it deploys technology from other companies, including Siemens, ABB, Schlumberger and GE.
  • Data acquisition and database management systems: The microprocessor-controlled data acquisition system ‘listens’ for pulses from the electricity meter and passes the information to the database management system. It can also acquire data from gas and water meters or any other devices connected to the gateway via a home network.
  • TCP/IP internet server
  • Broadband modem: Information is passed from the database to the internet via a broadband modem and an ethernet connection. The open standards of WebGate mean that any number of broadband modems available on the market can be used, and MU Net is in the process of obtaining approvals for its own modem. Other devices, for example DSL ladder, fibre optic media converter or a cable modem going over the cable TV signal, can also be used depending on the local broadband infrastructure. WebGate is therefore ‘agnostic’ to this ‘final mile’ solution, providing that there is a connection to a broadband system rather than a dial-up network.

The WebBot central control software is a back office tool for the utility to control and monitor as many WebGate devices as it has installed in its service territory. Using WebBot, the utility can program its WebGate gateways to collect specified consumption data, program the WebGate units – for example if there is a rate change, upgrade software and so on. It allows the utility to specify exactly what type of information it wants, and when and how frequently it wants it – for example to take hourly or daily meter reads, official meter reads etc.

This data is collected via the internet, is collated in a temporary database and then passed seamlessly to the utility’s legacy customer management or customer information system. The utility can then analyse this data to gain a valuable insight into its customers’ energy use patterns and load profiles.

WebBot is a Windows-based application using open standards architecture. It can therefore interface with leading database packages such as Microsoft SQL server and Oracle 8i. It is also scalable to meet the needs of large utilities with multi-million meters.

Evolving services

HomeHeartbeat is a tool that allows utilities to deliver information to the customer and is designed to enhance a utility’s customer service, retention and acquisition abilities. The utility can deliver information that it believes will be of interest to the consumer, or that is directly related to a service that the consumer has subscribed to. It is designed to be interactive for the consumer, and can be tailored to an individual consumer’s needs.

HomeHeartBeat allows the consumer to display via a web portal basic data from devices and appliances connected to the WebGate IP gateway in the home, including information on electric, gas and water usage. The information displayed can include current billing and historical consumption data. Also provided are direct links to the customer care page of the utility’s web site and access to electronic billing.

One of the main advantages of this, says Sparkman, is that it allows customers to gain a better understanding of their energy use and how it translates into a monthly bill. From there, they can start to make savings. “We don’t think that a lot of people know what a kilowatt-hour is,” said Sparkman, “but we do know that a lot of people know what a dollar is, and so the meter can express to the consumer how many dollars of energy they have consumed.”

As utility services evolve, HomeHeartBeat can also change to accommodate new services offered by the utility such as security, energy management, property care, internet access and other telecommunications services. HomeHeartBeat can also become a ‘home centric’ portal with enhanced content for the consumer, for example subscription to energy or home-related communities, content on home improvement and gardening, and the inclusion of value added services such as insulation and appliance recommendations.

Enhanced abilities

While the WebGate system offers utilities the prospect of wide-ranging and tailored customer services, deregulation is still in its early years and it will take some time for utilities to reach this point. So for now, the main advantages of WebGate for utilities is enhanced and cost-effective AMR and energy management capabilities, and it is these two functions that the technology is currently performing in trials in the USA.

WebGate’s advanced AMR capabilities allow the utility to take frequent meter reads and to acquire reads remotely via the internet. This provides the utility with a wealth of information about its customers, their needs and their load profiles. With WebGate, the utility also controls a 200 A relay switch behind the meter that allows it to disconnect services if necessary.

With the addition of home networking technology such as power line carrier communications or wireless technology, WebGate allows utilities to reach into the home and perform remote load management (RLM), i.e. to manage residential peak energy demand in real time over the internet.

Figure 3. WebGate ICIS serves the commercial market.
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RLM essentially involves the utility, with the agreement of the homeowner, monitoring and controlling a household’s HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system. During peak demand, the utility will change the setting on the homeowner’s thermostat to shed load, but will first alert the homeowner via HomeHeartBeat of its intentions and give them the option of overriding the change.

“The ability to go out and change the set point on a thousand or ten thousand homes – for example move the set point up five degrees for 90 minutes – would be a great help on a day when demand seems to exceed capacity,” notes Sparkman. “You need to have the homeowner’s permission and you also have to go in and upgrade the thermostat and make the link between the thermostat and the gateway device.

“You have to work with the homeowner, so clearly there is another advantage for the utility here; it brings the customer and the utility closer together in a shared business environment. Here in the USA and also in Europe where deregulation has occurred, an important marketing consideration is how you get customers and how you keep customers – that requires more customer contact and unique programmes, more effort on the utility side to meet the need of the homeowner to save money and increase comfort.”

One utility that has been able to effectively deploy WebGate’s AMR and energy management capabilities is New England-based Northeast Utilities (NU), which is currently using the technology to manage peak residential energy demand, collect data about residential energy use, and to learn about how customers respond to such load management strategies.

NU has been able to curtail home air conditioning energy consumption during this summer when temperatures in the northeastern USA have soared and energy consumption has reached new heights. According to MU Net, with the integration of AMR and RLM, NU can immediately quantify the effect of any load curtailment it carries out.

In the WebGate trials, NU plans to evaluate customer reaction to changes in thermostat set points of a few degrees for a short period of time in the hope of identifying a range of conservation which is undetectable to the customer yet still significantly reduces energy consumption.