Smart meter technology is proving a game changer for WEL Networks, allowing it to trim costs, boost reliability, and provide cheaper electricity for customers.
The lines company is also working towards carbon zero certification for its Hamilton headquarters, and has secured funding to convert a truck to electric as it develops a range of projects aimed at enhancing sustainability.
The meters, which have been rolled out over the past five years and are now installed at about 70 percent of Waikato connections, provide a rich source of granular metadata that has helped the company reduce capital expenditure, improve network reliability and reduce its risk profile, says CEO Garth Dibley.
They enable the company to analyse power flow and patterns of usage.
“We’ve used the metadata to reset our asset management plan, it’s helped us reduce both our capital expenditure and our maintenance expenditure because we know a lot more about what’s going on.”
He says the advances will allow the organisation to offer customers annual savings equal to the discount which WEL Energy Trust dished out for the last time this year.
Also available is a trial of OurPower, a fully online electricity retail store.
It comes as power companies face pressure to reduce residential prices, after the Electricity Price Review, released in September, showed 100,000 households are experiencing “energy hardship”, meaning they are spending more than 10 percent of their income on power.
WEL Networks has focused on those less well-off customers with OurPower, says Garth. It has formed an alliance with Hamilton St Vincent de Paul which sees its manager, Mike Rolton, act as an aggregator by showing customers how to sign on.
So far WEL has about 230 customers for the scheme, not only from St Vincent, Garth says.
Customers get the cheaper power courtesy of a no-frills service that has been made possible by the smart meters. There is no call centre; all contact is through the online portal, keeping costs down. The online store was developed by Rob Johnson and the scheme is a joint initiative with Johnson Group.
The full service is set to go live next April, and the scheme will be capped by legislation at around 10,000 customers, but Garth says it is already providing savings for customers of about 25 percent.
“If it goes gangbusters and people are really keen here, then we’ll have to find a different owner,” Garth says.
If that happened, he says they would look for a not-for-profit or philanthropic trust that would run it without markups. “I want to try and hold with the concept that we’re trying to provide cheaper electricity to our community.”
The smart meters also allow WEL to check faults from distance; if a customer phones to report an outage, the operator can tell whether the fault is on the property or on the street, in which case WEL dispatches its own faults crew. That alone has saved the company $70,000 in truck callouts this year, says Garth.
The combined improvements to its service will see the company reducing power prices cuts by the equivalent of the discount over a three-year period and paying WEL Energy Trust a larger dividend.
“Say you were getting $150 back in discount, you’ll get that $150 back just through lower power prices from us,” Garth says.
“There’s two things we’re really trying to do here. One is to work out how we can provide cheaper, reliable electricity to our community, and the other is to be able to reduce the CO2 emissions in Waikato.
“If we can crack that nut I think we’ve done something pretty cool for Waikato.”
The second part of the equation involves researching and developing a variety of technologies, including so-called “nano” and “micro” networks. WEL Networks is prototyping one at its own headquarters. It features a mix of power sources, integrating solar panels, generators, a newly installed 100kW battery and mains to enhance self-sufficiency, and to aim for the coveted carbon zero certification.
The intention, once the building is fully functioning on the new network, is to demonstrate its capabilities to other businesses and foster its uptake.
The technology will be upscalable, and WEL Networks has been talking to Tainui Group Holdings who are keen to look at using it on a much bigger scale to power at the inland port at Ruakura.
Further research into emissions reductions will come thanks to $225,000 in funding from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency to convert an internal combustion engine truck to an electric vehicle with an elevated work platform for line maintenance work.
One quirky possibility is that the truck may be able to help power WEL Networks’ Maui St headquarters because its battery will be twice the size of the building’s permanent one. Garth says the truck could even potentially be used at times in place of a diesel generator to supply power to homes where there has been a cut.
Also with a view to aiding sustainability, WEL Networks is trying to encourage its customers to move towards using power at off-peak times by charging at “time of use”.
“We’re the first lines company to do that. It means power is more expensive during power consumption peaks and less expensive at night or during the middle of the day. We’re trying to encourage people to move in those areas.”
Garth says he wants the company to be seen as a value-added service.
He gives as an example WEL Networks’ involvement in lighting up the Perry Bridge off grid and the possible payoff for others from developing the technologies and transferring knowledge.
“We’re working on the basis that we’re moving towards creating an innovative future for Waikato,” Garth says.
“At the end of the day we are owned by the community, we should be doing cool stuff for the community.”