KIHEI - Maui Electric Co. has begun installing new, "smart" power meters in Maui Meadows, enabling the utility to remotely monitor electricity fed to more than 100 residents taking part in the Maui smart-grid demonstration project.
Already, two meters have been installed and tested to show that they're functioning properly, said Chris Reynolds, MECO's operations superintendent.
Starting next week, another 110 meters will be installed, with all expected to be in place in May, he said.
Maui Electric Co. electrician Robert Fujimoto completes the installation recently of the first smart meter at a Maui Meadows residence.
Maui Electric Co. photo
The smart-grid project will help MECO reduce peak demand for electricity, improve service, help customers make informed energy-use decisions and integrate renewable energy.
The residential smart meters will tell MECO instantly if there are voltage fluctuations in the system, Reynolds said. Ideally, a residence should get from 114 to 126 volts of power, but voltage can fluctuate outside that range.
Without smart-grid technology, "we can't see that," Reynolds said. "We only know if the customer calls (and reports) lights going dim or a stove not cooking properly."
Then, MECO needs to send out a technician to take test voltage readings and do other tests, he said.
And, the smart-grid technology will "let us know about outages in the area," Reynolds said. Now, in instances of small blackouts involving a few homes, "we don't know when people are out of power until they call in."
The software that makes it possible for MECO dispatch operators to "see" what's happening in the demonstration project comes from Alstom Grid, an electric grid systems management company headquartered in France. The software is called the "e-terradistribution integrated distribution management system."
Al Morgan, the North American business development manager for the system, said the company's software is the "eyes for the control center to monitor the project."
The same technology has been proved and already is in use by power utilities in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin, Morgan said.
The system allows utilities to respond quicker to power outages and get customers back on line faster, he said.
MECO spokeswoman Kau'i Awai-Dickson said the smart-grid system also will help the utility accept more renewable sources of energy, such as home-based photovoltaic panels or wind turbines, because it will be able to monitor the power being fed directly from residences into the distribution system.
Now, power generated by solar panels or wind turbines fluctuates, and "we can't see when the sun is covered by clouds or the wind stops blowing," she said. "If we can't see it and monitor it, it's hard for us to control it."
Alstom Grid announced Wednesday that its integrated distribution system had been selected for the demonstration project in South Maui.
"The Maui smart-grid demonstration project is a critical component to reducing our state's dependence on imported oil, integrating more clean energy and improving the service we provide to our customers," said Ed Reinhardt, president of MECO.
Alstom's system "will play a significant role in helping our customer volunteers experience firsthand the benefits of a smarter power distribution system. We look forward to having the system up and running and working with Alstom experts to make this demonstration project a successful best practice for similar initiatives across the country."
The Maui project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of demonstration projects nationwide. MECO and the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii are leading the project.
Reynolds said he's pleased with the project's progress so far.
"We're moving in the right direction," he said, adding that steps are being taken "a bit on the cautious side."
"We're making sure we're doing it right the first time," he said.
The demonstration project is expected to take about a year, although it could be extended, Reynolds said.
Maui Meadows residents can sign up for a second wave of smart meter installations. For more information or to sign up, go online to mauismartgrid.com.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.