Smart Meters Coming to Marblehead by Spring

Municipal Light Department selects Intelagrid to install system to help consumers manage their electricity usage.

By Stewart Lytle,
October 5, 2010

Marblehead moved a step closer to having one of the nation's most innovative electrical grid system as the Municipal Light Commission authorized its general manager Robert Jolly to begin negotiations with a Virginia firm, Intelagrid, to install the new meters, the wireless transmission technology and the software for the system.

The Light Department has been planning for several years to replace the more than 9,300 electric meters in Marblehead with new smart meters that are monitored continuously through a wireless system. The program will cost about $2.6 million. About half of the cost, a little more than $1.3 million, is being paid for through a highly competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Funding for the new system is already in the light department's budget and will not cost the town or the electricity customers more, Jolly has said.

"This program takes us to the next level," Jolly said after an earlier meeting with the commission last week. "It is cutting edge, a state of the art program."

The system, envisioned by Jolly and his staff, includes several features, such as a portal for consumers to monitor their own usage, that only Intelagrid could provide.

Jolly told the commission that he and his team narrowed the field of five bidders to two companies – Trilliant of Redwood, CA, and Intelagrid. The other companies were using "old school" technologies or were significantly more expensive, he said.

The general manager said he was leaning toward Trilliant initially because he thought it met all the criteria for the system and was a larger company. Trilliant has installed smart metering systems in Canada and recently was awarded a contract in Maine.

But when Jolly flew to St. Paul, MN to inspect a Trilliant system, it did not include some features that the light department wants for the Marblehead system, he said. Trilliant executives told him that the additional features could be purchased from software companies, but at additional costs.

Intelagrid offered those features without the additional cost or having to involve other vendors, Jolly said. So he recommended to the commission that the department begin negotiations with Intelagrid, which has allowed the department to run a pilot program with a few meters over the last few weeks.

Intelagrid on its Web site says it "builds products that provide utilities and consumers the ability to manage and monitor a smart grid or smart home network. Intelagrid solutions utilize high speed, standards-based communications to provide the most reliable energy data communication networks that enable energy management and utility operations in real time."

"Nobody else can do what this system does," Jolly said.

The system allows consumers to monitor through a Web site how much electricity they are using on an hourly basis. It also features tips on ways to save electricity.

In addition, the system will allow the light department to monitor its own equipment and thus avoid some equipment failures, Jolly said.

The estimated cost of buying and installing the equipment, including the more than 9,300 meters, was $1.8 million. The exact cost is not fixed, he said, because no one can predict exactly how many meters will be needed over the next few years.

Several commission members insisted that it approve the contract, once it is negotiated. Jolly predicted it would take about a month to negotiate the agreement with Intelagrid.

He expects to begin installing new meters for the first phase of the program by March. The installation will take up to 18 months.

The meter-replacement program is part of a national DOE program to manage electricity usage. As part of the program, the Light Department will conduct a test of 400 customers in time-of-day pricing. In this system, there will be "a carrot and a stick," Jolly said. The rates will be discounted for electricity used in non-peak times and the rates will be higher in peak use times. With smart meters, individual consumers can monitor their usage on a web site.

The department and its consultants will be analyzing "what it will take for consumers to change their behavior, Jolly said.

The general manager said Marblehead residents "are pretty educated" about electricity use. The department has had a "Stop Peaking" program in town since the 1970s. Peak usage times are early morning and early evening.

Marblehead is one of only two municipality owned electricity providers to win a grant for the smart meter program. Danvers Electric received $8.5 million, and DOE awarded a total of $35.6 million in smart-grid grants in Massachusetts. In a highly competitive program, DOE awarded $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money to 100 different utilities nationwide. Utilities across the country applied for a total of $9 billion in grants for smart meters.