Deregulation of the retail electric market in Texas forced the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), a public generation and transmission utility, to innovate advanced meter and meter data management services for key account customers. Proscribed from providing those services directly, LCRA (Austin, Texas, U.S.) combined with two outside businesses for key account support. Further, LCRA adapted that approach to collecting data for use in other utility service areas. When Texas opened meter ownership and meter services to a free market in January 2004, LCRA was in the position to provide meter services models for working in this new environment.

Customer Choice Redefines Metering Needs

The intent of the Texas deregulation initiative was to enable the customers of private, vertically integrated utilities to make market-based choices of generation providers. When the retail market officially opened to competition in January 2002, a customer could buy power from any one of a number of generation companies, but continued to depend on the existing transmission and distribution service provider (TDSP) to deliver it. The TDSP continued to own the electric meters and was responsible for providing accurate meter data for billing purposes.

While the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) saw their world changing, the legislation also impacted public entities. LCRA separated generation and transmission operations, at first only intellectually but now physically. Today, the two parts of the electric operations reside about 10 miles (16 km) apart in Austin.

Deregulation has greatly enhanced the authority and role of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the control area governing electric utilities operating entirely within the state's borders. ERCOT and its member utilities have formed rulemaking bodies to guide the management of the market with ERCOT enforcing the rules. Opening the market concentrated all transmission management and plant dispatch in ERCOT's hands, with 10 control areas now joined into one. The new rules require all loads of 1 MW or greater to be metered with a combination of a meter and interval data recorder (IDR), also called a recorder under glass (or RUG).

Opening the market to consumer choice broke up the vertically integrated utility. No longer does an IOU generate, transmit, deliver, meter and bill. Generators make deals with consumers. The delivery and metering of power rests with the TDSPs, and the generation provider bills the consumer for both generation and all TDSP or “wires” charges. Responsibility for meter accuracy, reading and data also lies with the TDSPs, who read IDRs and send the data to ERCOT for billing settlement. ERCOT then forwards data to the generation providers for billing.

LCRA's Past Metering Structure

LCRA's generation business component, Wholesale Power Services (WPS), effectively mirrors the market. WPS generates and sells wholesale electricity to 33 municipal utilities, seven rural electric cooperatives and the McCulloch District of Cap Rock Energy (which reorganized as an IOU). Under the rules of deregulation in Texas, public power utilities do not have to participate in the competitive retail market. To date, Cap Rock is the only one of LCRA's customers that has chosen this path.

Faced with the possibility that any customer's board may vote to “opt in” to competition, LCRA has developed a key accounts program that makes advanced metering, meter services and daily data collection available to its customer base.

Meter services and meter data management fell in a crack between the two parts of LCRA. When vertically integrated, LCRA provided its wholesale customers with distribution-level services for meters and meter data collection. LCRA's metering department tested, installed, verified and performed annual tests of advanced meters and their potential/current transformers. The data translation group, which reads substation meters with MV-90 for wholesale billing, also read several end-user meters for its wholesale customers. Most of those meter/recorders participate in LCRA's voluntary Industrial Load Management (ILM) program. LCRA read the meters so ILM staff could extract the data to verify load reduced in response to the signal to shed at peak times. Other recorders collected data for a handful of consumers in the growing key account program. Both metering and data translation belonged to the Transmission Services Corp. Customer and Energy Services (CES), in the generation part of LCRA, managed the ILM and key account programs.

After the formal split between transmission and generation, LCRA legal staff concluded that the data translation department should not see data from end users, because they were retail consumers of LCRA's wholesale customers. Not long afterward, the transmission group ended its support of distribution metering.

Seeking Outside Help

Anticipating the changes, CES formally bid and then contracted with two outside companies to replace the lost internal support for its key account program. Starting in 2000, Texas Meter and Device (TMD; Waco, Texas) has provided full meter support, and MeterSmart's Utility Data Resources (Arlington, Texas) has supplied data translation services. LCRA's customers pay for the services with a charge on their monthly wholesale power bills. To date, 30 customers have about 300 meters in the program. Most important to LCRA's generation sales is that at least 100 of those represent entire commercial and industrial rate classes for several customers.

How does this arrangement work? First, LCRA's key account staff sets up the project with a customer. Once the customer has signed a participation agreement, LCRA's field staff coordinates the installation of the meter and remote communications to poll its modem (preferably by land-line, but by cell if the meter's location is inaccessible). LCRA's staff also coordinates the account setup with MeterSmart. Two of LCRA's customers perform their own meter and communications work, but the others leave the tasks to LCRA.

Second, and importantly, the wholesale customer owns the meter. Third, under the terms of the key account program, TMD is responsible for meter accuracy, testing and installations followed by annual inspections and tests. The testing program gives customers confidence that their major consumers have meters that are accurately recording the power consumed so they recover their costs. Fourth, MeterSmart calls these IDRs daily, runs full verification, estimating and editing on the data, and posts data by customer and consumer on secure Web sites. Each wholesale customer has a site with all of its key accounts' data, and each consumer also has a site that is protected by unique logon identification codes and passwords.

In summary, the utility/customer owns the meter, TMD takes care of it, and MeterSmart sends its data daily to Web sites for LCRA, the distribution utility and the consumer. MeterSmart also forwards interval data to LCRA for billing.

Extending the Approach

With the key account metering/data management model in place, LCRA was ready to deal with its own operations in other utilities' service areas. LCRA owns and operates three water irrigation districts along the Colorado River stretching from just south of Columbus, Texas, to Matagorda Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. In this region served by AEP Texas Central Co. (formerly Central Power and Light), LCRA owns facilities ranging in size from water pumping stations of more than 2 MW to night lights and storage buildings. Working with an aggregator, LCRA went out to bid for a generation price for all of those structures and operations, looking to reduce its electrical costs after the retail market opened. Though it had years of billing data, LCRA went to bid without the load shapes interval data can provide.

That is where the key account experience came into play. The CES staff concluded that collecting interval data on the major loads AEP had identified for ERCOT metering would enable LCRA's water services group to seek competitive bidding with better information. LCRA wanted data, so it worked with AEP to replace the recently installed interval recorders with meters fitted with modems. AEP charged a modest sum per meter for the upgrade, but AEP retains ownership of the meters.

In this arrangement, LCRA took responsibility for communication links to the meters, ensuring that the local telephone company installed lines close to them. At the three points where the meter was in a substation or enclosed area and the telephone company's demarcation box sat outside, an LCRA electrician ran lines in conduit under the substation fence from the demarcation box to the meter point.

For a meter that could be reached only by a cell phone, TMD set the cell phone. Only when the phone lines were set did AEP's meter technician connect them to the meters. Here, too, MeterSmart polls the IDRs daily and displays its data on a Web site for LCRA.

This is a second model of meter/data collection: LCRA is the customer who paid for a meter upgrade and is responsible for telephone communications. AEP Texas Central Co. is the TDSP that owns the meters, reads them and sends their interval data to ERCOT, which forwards the files to LCRA's generation provider for billing. LCRA has its meter data management agent (MDMA), MeterSmart, read the recorders and post its data daily to a Web site for LCRA to use.

The third way LCRA has arranged for meter data management conforms more to the structures of vertically integrated utilities. In Austin, LCRA always has received its electric service from the city's municipal utility, Austin Energy (AE). Until the spring of 2003, however, the city had never charged LCRA for its electrical usage. Instead, LCRA and AE have engaged in energy swaps. The utilities share interests in two power plants, water systems and similar inter-local enterprises. Under the terms of several agreements, the energy LCRA used in Austin was netted out of the various interchanges, the largest part being the power-generation agreements.

The greatest usage occurs at LCRA's service center, the location of the various construction, fabrication and maintenance shops, all of which belong to Transmission Services. In essence, WPS' generators were paying Transmission Services' electric bill. LCRA concluded that that arrangement, while convenient, was not in keeping with the intent of separating regulated (transmission) and non-regulated (generation) operations.

Faced with electric bills for the first time, LCRA's building services group realized it had little idea of how the facilities used energy. Once again, the CES experience in metering and data collection could assist. Working with AE's key account manager and meter crew, CES had the city replace the existing meters with current IDRs. At the main office complex, the city replaced old LCRA equipment, relieving LCRA's meter technicians of the need to maintain an obsolete separate meter and recorder combination. Here, too, LCRA paid for the upgrades to IDR and arranged telephone communications to the meters. As elsewhere, MeterSmart reads the meters daily and posts its data to Web sites for the LCRA facilities managers.

Meter Data is the Key

A specific benefit for LCRA is that interval data and its resulting load shapes help the facility managers meet a legislated target. While deregulating the retail market, the Texas Legislature also mandated that, starting in September 2001, all departments had to undertake energy-use reduction projects with the goal to reduce energy by 5% per annum for five years. With no baseline or information, the LCRA managers had no way to measure their work.

This, then, is the more traditional model. AE generates, transmits, delivers, meters and bills the electricity. LCRA, the consumer, paid for upgraded service and telephone lines. MeterSmart interrogates the meters and provides data for the consumer's use.

The key is getting data. LCRA wanted data for its own and for its customers. In the redesigned world of a reregulated market, where relationships have changed, LCRA created new relationships to achieve its goals. It now can educate and inform both its own managers as well as the managers and owners of the utilities and consumers it serves.

Tom Knutsen is an energy services consultant for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). He and a co-worker share responsibility for the meter and communications infrastructure, data collection and billing data delivery for key end-use consumers served by LCRA's wholesale customers. Knutsen has worked at LCRA since 1981 on tasks as varied as residential demand-side management, industrial load management, DSM evaluation, end-use consumer pricing and metering services. He holds an bachelor's degree in history from Yale University and a master's degree in communications from The University of Texas at Austin.