Smart Utility System Provides Future Options

Valley City City Administrator David Schelkoph said the city’s main reason for considering installing smartgrid technology is for load control but the advanced technology has the ability to offer much more.

The Valley City City Commission learned more about Cooper Power’s automated metering infrastructure system Feb. 19 during its regular meeting, but no decision has been made.

AMI uses smartgrid technology to provide smarter and more efficient utilities to residents. The system would work harder to provide less work for the city and allow people to track and customize their utility usage.

“Our load control program established the current equipment and policies and procedures started around the 1980s — maybe even in the late ‘70s.

Some of that equipment was acquired over the next three to four years, but it hasn’t really been updated since then,” Schelkoph said. “Some of the frequencies that we use to communicate with our control devices are now either being fazed out or are fazed out, so it just needs to be replaced.”

The load control system, which is a method the city uses to reduce its energy usage by controlling the load with customers who sign up for the program, saves the city about $200,000 per year on energy costs.

“That’s just for winter peaking, and currently we have no apparatus in place to do summer peaking,” Schelkoph said, adding, “We need to expand our load control into the summer to save us additional money.”

AMI would give the city the ability to do that.

Schelkoph said he wants the commission and residents of Valley City to become familiar and comfortable with the new technology before the commission votes.

“AMI provides us a communication infrastructure that’s isolated from the world. We’re not using any Internet; we’re not using anything to connect back and forth to the individual homes. It’s its own separate communication system,” Schelkoph said.

Upgrading to AMI not only helps with load control but also gives the city a much better way to read meters and in the future can allow customers to customize their utility usage.

“What’s really neat about it is the future. We can do just about whatever the customer wants. There will be some costs involved with some of these services, but there will be the ability for our customers to have much more knowledge in what their electrical bill is,” Schelkoph said. “Once people understand how they use their electricity, then it’s up to them how they want to conserve.”

Tom Thoreson of Cooper Power assured the commission last week that the software platform is very secure and Cooper Power has a group of employees dedicated to fending off hackers.

The estimated cost to install the new system is $1.2 million, and Schelkoph said there is enough money in the Public Works fund to pay for the upgrade and still have enough money left for emergencies.

If the commission decides to install AMI, each meter within the city’s utility system will be replaced with a meter that’s easier and more efficient and accurate to read.

Schelkoph said about 40 percent of meters in Valley City are located inside residents’ homes, which are read every month by a utility worker.
“There’s a lot of estimating going on (with that method),” Schelkoph said, but the new meters would be able to communicate to the city directly through Cooper Power’s private software program.

He said if the AMI system is installed, “We see no reason to reduce our staff at all. We’ll be able to find other positions and other things for them to do.”