As dozens of U.S. utilities ramp up their deployment of smart grid programs and with them new digital / smart meters, a few meter installations reportedly are causing small fires that could undermine the trust utilities need to continue updating the nation’s 100+year-old electric system.
It is not clear how many real fires have resulted from how the new meters connect with existing, and possibly, corroded “sockets” that housed the old analog meters. But as awareness builds of these incidents and some media blow them out of proportion, it is incumbent on the industry to get to the bottom — quickly — of the facts and risks involved and be ready to communicate accurately and responsibly about them. Some deployments have stalled while others have been put on hold indefinitely. One utility has dismissed its smart meter vendor.
Trust is perhaps the most important and helpful foundational ingredient to the success of smart grid programs. Utilities, and the suppliers and consultants who support them, lose it at their peril.
Protests cropped up at the GridWeek 2012 meeting in Washington, DC and reportedly at several sites in California. These weren’t just over the reported fires; they also alleged privacy encroachment and radio-frequenty (RF) emissions that the activists deem to be a health threat.
One indication that intelligent people are thinking proactively about this challenge can be found on the blog of DNV KEMA, beginning with this summary of known facts posted this week by consultants Ron Chebra and Rob Wilhite.
- Forensic evidence suggests that the problem is a known issue commonly called “hot socket”—a case where the blades of the socket receptacle are not making good electrical contact due to spreading, corrosion, or other insulating effect. As a result, the current flow encounters higher resistance at the contacts, causing excessive temperature rise and possible flash-over.
- Underwriters Lab (UL) has recently been engaged to do safety testing on these smart meters by some utilities. While presently there is not a specific meter safety test protocol by UL, they are modeling these tests after the electric vehicle charging specification (UL 2735).
- There is speculation that the mechanical differences between traditional electro-mechanical meters (glass covers and metal bases) and solid-state meters (carbon compound and plastic) may be a strong contributor to this situation (lower flash point).
- Installation quality may be a root cause, as there appears to be a “cluster” of these events in one community (Bucks County, PA) where a particular installation contractor is being used to deploy these.
- One particular meter manufacturer has been cited by one utility and, as a result, they have switched to another supplier for the time being to see if there is any performance difference. In the meantime, the existing meters have received a new software feature that provides automatic shut-off if problems are detected.
Given this recent turn of events, what can electric utilities, manufacturers, and other interested stakeholders do to solve the problem and minimize potential risks?
One option according to Messrs. Chebra and Wilhite is to develop an industry response where current standards fail or contain gaps. This is done already in other industries through the adoption of recommended practices such as the Committee of Chief Risk Officers serving merchant energy companies and progressive energy utilities.
While they are voluntarily adopted, recommended practices can become de facto industry standards as they are developed in collaboration with key power industry stakeholders, including regulators and consumer advocates.
Recommended practices for smart meters that seek to avoid potential and catastrophic failure risks, such as meter overheating and fire eruptions, could focus on a number of key areas, Chebra and Wilhite assert, such as:
- Meter design, manufacturing, test, and quality assurance: What measures should vendors and third party testing organizations employ to help ensure safety and measures to early identification and reporting of potential problems in smart meters?
- Meter installation processes, installer training, supervision, audit, and test: How should installations take place, what measures from a process and testing perspective should be undertaken to identify risks and to manage them effectively?
- Performance and trouble monitoring and action: With mounds of new information being presented by smart meters, what measures should be taken to diagnose potential problems, take active measures to respond, and to continually monitor to minimize potential risks?
- Analysis and linkage of association of events to look for particular trends: How should new installations be treated within the organization? For instance, how does a utility customer complaint about power quality concerns get linked to their meter installation history, should these concerns result in an immediate dispatch.