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Smart grid could be fertile ground for RFID technology

08/13/09 | John R. Johnson | email

Smart grid technology is taking the nation by storm. President Obama's stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) includes about $4.4 billion intended to jump start investment in the smart grid sector.

RFID technology might be able to go along for the ride – especially if the utility industry starts to embrace the technology. Some utilities are using RFID and sensor technology, but relatively few have incorporated RFID into their smart grid strategy to date. And only a small percentage of the millions of smart meters being rolled out to homes and businesses across the country utilize RFID technology.

Still, Mark McGranaghan, a director at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), calls the potential for RFID to impact the smart grid network “a big deal.”

Smart meters allow consumers to closely monitor their energy usage. Studies show that consumers typically save up to 15 percent on their electric bills once they realize where energy is used. Utilities are in the midst of deploying millions of smart meters, many in the pilot stage. Texas-based Oncor Electric Delivery Co. announced an aggressive smart metering initiative in May that calls for Oncor to outfit 3.4 million customers with smart meters by the end of 2011. The Wall Street Journal estimates that the smart meters being supplied by Landis+Gyr and worth about $360 million.

With dozens of similar pilots and deployments on tap in North America, the use of RFID technology as an asset tracking solution for the millions of meters being deployed would appear to be a slam dunk. In addition, the technology could also be used to track thousands of expensive line monitoring and transformer monitoring devises through the supply chain as they are shipped to await deployment.

“We’re not seeing a lot of movement for RFID in the smart grid space yet, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t occur,” says Patrick Esposito, chief operating officer at Augusta Systems, a systems integrator in the utility space that has deployed RFID-based asset management systems in other industries. “The best use of RFID in the smart grid world is probably during pre-deployment. As more utilities purchase equipment like smart meters, tagging those items – or at least tagging the boxes they come in – would make tracking those items much easier.”

Texas Instruments has rolled out a plan to utilize RFID for pre-payment options for consumers equipped with smart meters. According to TI, RFID-enabled pre-paid smart meters give utilities access to a broader customer base while reducing the risk of non-payment and offer consumers a new and fast way to control and pay for services. Despite TI’s initiative, relatively few smart meter vendors have embraced the technology to date.

Some industry research groups are examining how RFID and smart grid technology can work together. The UCLA WINSmartGrid Connection recently announced that RFID will be on the agenda when its holds its third Thought Leadership Forum in November. The meeting will examine the convergence between the existing electric grid and the next generation of wireless technology, RFID and integrated sensors technologies.

In addition, EPRI is also investigating the technology for a number of uses, including applications to monitor transmission lines, automated substations, and underground power cables. McGranaghan says that the Tennessee Valley Authority is using RFID and other wireless sensor technology to monitor pollution levels at a coal generation plant in Kentucky. The substation there currently has about 60 to 70 RFID tags being interrogated on a daily basis.

The utility sector could embrace RFID for several other applications already in use in other industries, such as asset tracking, people and staff monitoring, and for access control applications at high security places like substations. However, the pre-deployment use case seems to have the most promise.

“This is an area that a lot of people just aren’t talking about yet,” says Esposito. “It’s a new space. What is intriguing about the smart grid is that there is lot of rich technology that can be utilized in a lot of different ways. So the injection of RFID technology into smart grid seems very plausible.”

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