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Itron, Avista join in pilot test to demonstrate smart grid reliability

The Spokesman-Review

About 13,000 homes and businesses in Pullman are the guinea pigs in a smart grid project involving the Inland Northwest’s largest utility and the region’s largest energy technology manufacturer.

The five-year Pullman smart grid test will equip Avista Utility customers with the latest generation of electric meters developed by Liberty Lake-based Itron Inc.

The collaboration is the first large-scale smart grid effort by Avista and Itron to test ways to improve and control the costs of delivering reliable energy to customers.

It isn’t their first collaboration, however. Avista launched Itron as an automated meter-reading company in the 1970s and has installed previous versions of Itron meters both for electricity and gas customers. Itron has since become a global leader in utility services.

The Pullman project is expected to cost about $38 million and run five years. Half the money comes from federal stimulus and the rest from Avista and other test partners, including Washington State University and Itron.

Roughly one year into the project, Avista has installed the 13,000 Itron OpenWay advanced meters. Other grid components are being installed, said Heather Rosentrater, who directs Avista’s smart grid projects.

Smart grid advocates say the advantage of advanced meters is their ability to provide instant two-way communication between customer and utility. The Pullman test will evaluate the cost effectiveness of smart grid technology and whether it assures higher reliability and efficiency.

Rosentrater said the chief goal is to establish major improvements in smart grid systems and find out how the changes affect distribution and customer costs.

As more utilities evaluate how soon to invest in smart grid components, Itron expects the Pullman test will solidify its position as one of the top providers of advanced meter technology.

Itron and Swiss-based and Toshiba-owned Landis-Gyr are the dominant providers of advanced meters for utilities, said Dean Chuang, senior research analyst for IDC Energy Insight.

That Avista has used Itron’s OpenWay meters in the Pullman test shows it will likely stick with Itron’s products when it makes its own smart grid upgrade, Chuang said.

“Avista is a mid-sized player in the grand scheme of things, but it represents another incremental win for Itron,” Chuang said. Itron has landed huge grid contracts for its meters, including with BC Hydro and Centerpoint.

“But (Pullman’s test) is another brick and it takes many bricks to build a house,” Chuang said.  

Avista has begun the first phase of a Spokane-area smart grid upgrade. The full timeline will depend on the Pullman results.

“That’s the goal (of the Pullman) project, so we can plan for the next stages,” Rosentrater said.

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