Wednesday, October 9, 2013

It's the year 2013, but where are the smart meters?

My first title for this post was "What to Do When the Power Goes Out", but I changed it in homage to the IBM commercial done by Avery Brooks where he asks "It's the year 2000, but where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars!"

On Saturday afternoon, during the CFL game between MontrĂ©al and Edmonton, the power went out at my home.  After a few moments without power, I decided to report the incident.  The power outage meant that I could not use my wi-fi connection at home, but I could access the internet via my smartphone and its 3G network.   I used the phrase "saskpower outages" for my search and found the page titled "Outages -- SaskPower" that provided an option to "Report an Outage".   Either one can begin a 4 step process to report a power outage (after asking me to verify that there this no power, and I am not trying to report streetlight trouble or an electrical emergency) or call in.  The province-wide toll-free number is also provided, however, it has not been updated on the website to include the area code for 10 digit dialing (which has been mandatory since May 11, 2013) [It is possible to make a telephone number clickable (or dialable on a mobile phone), which is done on in certain places on the saskpower website, but it is not very useful without the area code included.]

I didn't get through the form to do the online report of an outage, since I used the phone.  That I didn't get a busy signal was a sign to me that the outage was not large -- not many customers calling to complain.  I was pleased to speak with someone.  I was intrigued to learn that calls like mine were important for SaskPower to identify (and repair) outages.

Over an hour later, the power was still not restored.  The website prominently features its use of twitter to communicate unplanned outages.  On the "Report an Outage" page, the first line reads "Follow our Twitter feed for real-time alerts and updates on unplanned power outages in your area."  I went to twitter and found nothing.  So I called again.  I spoke to a different person who assured me that my outage was being handled.  When I asked why nothing was posted on twitter, he said that was used mainly for large outages affecting a lot of people.  For small ones, they communicate about it by talking to people on the phone.  I pointed out to him that such a message should be communicated on the website, at the very least.  I then went out for a walk and saw a SaskPower repair person who told me that restoration of power was imminent (which it was).

I find this approach from SaskPower to be very troubling.  If twitter is advertised as the source for information about unplanned outages, to not post details about all of the outages that are reported gives a false impression about the number (and severity) of outages that occur within the province.

Elsewhere on the website, I see the following breakdown of outages by cause:
  • Aging infrastructure / unknown: 38.2%
  • Environment / weather: 35%
  • Domino effect: 17.1%
  • Human error: 5.9%
  • Accidental contact: 3.8%
SaskPower tells me that it is working to renew and improve our system and it has devoted another page to explaining these efforts in more detail.

Yet missing from any of these pages that I have visited is any mention of smart grid technology being part of the infrastructure renewal.  I know that searching for "saskpower smart grid" will bring me to some pages about plans for upgrading the grid.  500,000 smart meters are planned to be deployed,  the web page says.  Conspicuously missing is a date.  Also strangely absent is any connection to the update of our aging infrastructure that is the leading cause of power outages in Saskatchewan.  Are these 2 web pages the product of different divisions that never speak to one another?

Interestingly, SaskPower solicits feedback from people about its webpages.  Under the heading "Express Yourself" is the phrase "This page makes me feel..." with the choices "Curious", "Unsure", "Frustrated", "Informed", "Inspired", and "Bored".  Because percentages are reported, the number of people actually expressing themselves is unclear.  I've noticed "Frustrated", "Informed", and "Bored" receiving clicks.

Back to the outage, how could smart meter technology have helped me (and SaskPower) during my power outage on Saturday?  I found an article from over 1 year ago that discussed the advantages of smart meters in dealing with power outages.  First and foremost, a smart meter can send a real-time outage alert back to SaskPower, possibly notifying SaskPower before a customer can call in.

The issues of smart meters (and the smart grid) involves more than better responses to outages and other benefits.  There are also issues around privacy that must be handled appropriately, in dialogue with an informed citizenry.  About half of all of SaskPower's generation capacity comes from coal ("clean coal" technologies notwithstanding), so any reductions that can be realized in consumption and demand through better information via "the smart grid" would be extremely valuable, for all citizens (and not just of Saskatchewan).

Are you curious about smart grid technology in Saskatchewan?  My adventure this weekend (and writing this post) has prompted me to contact my MLA (and other politicians).  I invite you to do the same and post a comment here (as will I with the responses I get).

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