Boasting a century’s worth of experience, Elster Electricity LLC develops the most innovative metering solutions available on the market. Dan Harvey reports on how the Raleigh, N.C.-based company’s creative, unconventional approach turned it into a global force.
Elster Electricity, LLC is providing the technological backbone to support a world that is hurtling headfirst, and with eyes wide open, into an increasingly wireless, electronic environment. Recognizing the need to tie wireless gadgetry into ever-growing electronic needs, the company is coupling electronic metering with communications.
The Raleigh, N.C.-based enterprise is well positioned to accomplish such a task. With more than 100 years of electricity metering experience, the company readily understands the ongoing needs and product requirements of electric utility providers.
As the company points out, the world constantly expresses, through consumers and providers, an accelerating demand for electricity and the attendant service capabilities. In turn, this generates a need for accurate, reliable methods to measure and track, as well as maintain, electric consumption. All of this fuels the industry need for increasingly sophisticated and integrated products.
Elster has responded by developing innovative metering solutions. Always focused on meeting crucial and urgent needs, Elster Electricity has evolved into a global leader. The company’s stated goal is to enable its customers to compete more effectively in a changing marketplace by increasing their revenues through solutions that reduce their costs by providing streamlined operational strategies. Specifically, it currently offers advanced metering products, communications solutions and metering automation systems that help utilities improve revenue cycle services, customer service, delivery reliability, and workforce utilization.
100 Years of Innovation
Located in Raleigh since 1953, the company’s origins actually date as far back as the late 1800s, according to Elster Electricity Vice President Ronald Via. As it progressed through the years, the company became part of Westinghouse Electric Corporation and then ABB Electricity Metering. Elster Electricity became a vital unit of the world’s largest multi-utility metering company in 2002 when Ruhrgas Industries of Germany acquired ABB Electricity Metering, and placed it alongside its existing metering companies, which included Elster Metering, American Meter Company and AMCO Water Metering Systems. In 2005, a private equity firm in Europe purchased all the metering companies within Ruhrgas Industries to form the Elster Group, a global leader in electricity, water and gas metering.
Through the years, Elster became known as the company that always came up with the new ideas related to metering issues. More recently, the company has addressed such issues by developing its revolutionary EnergyAxisr system, an industry changing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) that brought robust two-way communications into metering. “With that, we evolved from a hardware supplier to a solutions provider, offering the software and services that go with that role,” he adds.
Now, the company is experiencing 4- to 5-percent growth each year and has secured the top two positions in national and international markets: first in the domestic market and second globally. Its production is centered in Raleigh, but it also has manufacturing locations in Argentina, Brazil, Russia, Romania, China, United Kingdom and Germany, according to Via. “But our technology headquarters is right here in Raleigh,” he emphasizes.
Advanced Product Line
Today, Elster Electricity’s product portfolio boasts a comprehensive line of innovative and cost-effective electricity metering products, communications solutions, and metering automation systems.
As the company strives to meet the diverse and expanding electricity metering requirements of a global customer base, it offers a full suite of ANSI and IEC standards-compliant products. These include single-phase and poly-phase electromechanical meters for residential, and light and heavy commercial and industrial applications; advanced electronic meters for revenue metering; high-functionality electronic meters for advanced power quality applications; and a variety of communications technologies ranging from standard telephone lines to intelligent, two-way radio frequency (RF) communications.
ANSI-compliant electromechanical products include Elster’s Type AB residential meter and the Type ABS commercial and industrial meter. All AB meters deliver high reliability and accuracy and are configurable to support automated meter reading systems.
The more sophisticated electronic ALPHAr Plus and A3 ALPHA meters are available for high-function metering applications. All of Elster Electricity’s ALPHA meters feature the patented ALPHA technology that revolutionized the metering business in the early 1990s. For markets in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, where customers use IEC standards, Elster offers the A1200 ALPHA meter for commercial and light industrial utility metering and the A1800 ALPHA meter for heavy commercial and industrial applications.
Elster Electricity introduced the EnergyAxis System to the market in 2003, and since its release the system has proven to be a success. The vision behind the EnergyAxis system was to develop an economically viable metering system for the residential metering market that was easy to install and had minimal infrastructure requirements. This innovative metering system is capable of two-way communications and has the automated meter reading function integrated into the meter instead of using meter add on devices. The two-way communication system is a controlled mesh network made up of meters that can communicate to other meters within the system using multi-hop, repeating, and self-registering technology. Water metering capabilities were added to the system in 2005, making it an ideal metering automation system for municipal utilities and cooperatives that provide both water and electricity to their customers.
Elster Electricity incorporated its ALPHA technology into the family of meters designed for the EnergyAxis System. Its communications platform, the A3 ALPHA meter/collector, offers high accuracy and full ANSI C12.18, C12.19 and C12.21 communications support. It functions as a wide area network interface, local area network (LAN) interface, and data collector within the EnergyAxis System. A3 ALPHA meters that act as repeating nodes are available for commercial and industrial accounts.
The electronic REXr meter is a smart meter designed for both single phase and polyphase residential metering and provides built-in, two-way communications that offer demand, time-of-use, load profile recording, bi-directional metering and critical tier pricing capabilities, along with kWh consumption measurement. Its on-board, two-way radio frequency communications permit the meter to respond to requests over an unlicensed 900 MHz LAN.
The aforementioned EnergyAxis system, the company’s latest advancement, represents substantial technological improvement in network communications and functionality for automated meter reading. This pioneering residential metering system extends far beyond conventional solutions, as it provides utilities and retail energy suppliers with a system comprised of smart electronic meters and fully automated, intelligent two-way communications,
all of which make possible on-request meter reads and server-initiated commands.
The powerful, RF technology provides a mesh network of smart REX meters, which allows utilities to read meters as well as change energy, demand, or time-of-use rates as needed, start or stop load profile interval recording, or initiate a service disconnect. With its flexible design and architecture, it can support targeted deployments of hundreds or thousands of meters, up to full-scale installations.
“With the EnergyAxis, we’re not only a full hardware meter supplier; we’re also a communications supplier,” says Via. “By employing communications systems, customers can lower their ownership costs and increase their revenue.”
As Via sees it, the EnergyAxis technology will revolutionize the industry. “The beauty of EnergyAxis is that it provides a platform that we use for communications that extends down to the consumer,” he says. “We think it will be revolutionary because it is ever-evolving, enabling customers to add features to their systems. Two or three years from now, people will be asking for things that we haven’t even thought about yet. The platform will make those ideas reality. This is important, as we move forward and continue evolving into a world that is very communications and electronics savvy. We’re experiencing the kind of mentality and environment where 3-year-olds are using computers.”
Essentially, the industry will require more information and more tools that allow more user control, and EnergyAxis will provide the backbone to meet those requirements. The age of wireless gadgetry, including technological advancements such as iPods, Black Berrys, pagers, and cell phones, drives the need for such development. “We’ve become dependent on these gadgets,” comments Via. “People can’t live without them.”
Devices such as automatic timers, he comments, have become “old school.” He adds: “We’ve even thought about things like sending signals to an individual via cell phone that can tell them about their electric usage and what is happening at their house at that moment. Do they need to turn up the air-conditioner? Turn on the lights?”
Perhaps the best way to understand Elster Electricity’s business philosophy and approach is to go back to George Bernard Shaw (via his play, “Back to Methuselah”) and consider a line uttered by one of the characters: “You see things; and you say, `Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, `Why not?”
Via provides a nearly perfect paraphrase: “As we have always been innovators, we’re the unconventional company that looks at things and thinks, `Why can’t we do this?’ I can remember when we introduced the idea of one meter that could do several different voltages. People said that would never catch on. Now, if you don’t offer that kind of meter, you can’t even play in this industry anymore. So, we are always asking, `why not?'”
As Via suggests, the electrical industry is a relatively conservative one, and its actors tend to be resistant to change. However, Elster has never let prevailing attitudes dampen its innovative spirit. After all, demands of the industry are in a continual state of flux. Elster has risen to the top of it markets by looking at things in a different way and then providing cutting-edge solutions.