Is Pasadena Water and Power Building for an Obsolete Future?
Mayor Tornek and Councilmember Wilson ponder aloud new utility software and hardware investments in light of emerging technologies; projects move forward
|December 16, 2016 - Mayor Tornek and Councilmember Andy Wilson are asking some tough questions about metering technology and the future of utilities.|
|Plans by the Pasadena Water and Power Department (PWP) to develop a new Customer Information System as well as implement new power metering hardware, the total cost of which could be upwards of $30 million, prompted a discussion over the future of electric power itself at this week’s Municipal Services Committee meeting.|
That almost philosophical dialogue was prompted by a presentation delivered by the PWP’s Shari Thomas detailed the history and future of Pasadena’s current data gathering capabilities for billing water, sewer, electricity and trash customers.
The proposed new system would also require an overhaul of the City’s meter hardware, which would require upgrading or replacing the more than 37,000 meters city-wide. Both Glendale and Burbank recently upgraded their metering systems, at a cost of approximately $40 million for each city.
Said Thomas more than once in her presentation, “This is a very significant undertaking.”
Both Mayor Terry Tornek and Councilmember Andy Wilson raised questions as to the viability of developing better software and hardware to bill utility customers, when the future of municipal utilities could dramatically change over the ten to twenty years.
“I have to say, I am troubled by all of this,” said Mayor Tornek. “I’m wondering why we are planning this size of an investment when (Tesla developer and CEO) Elon Musk is putting batteries in people’s homes today, that might eventually eliminate public utilities.”
“It’s the ‘wine cellar’ syndrome,” said Wilson. “We start building new buildings and homes with underground parking, but in ten or fifteen years, because of the ‘sharing economy,’ we may have fewer cars. Those underground parking garages might as well be wine cellars.”
In a followup interview, Wilson added, “We’re making capital investments in things that have pretty long lives, and you have to ask yourself, ‘What parameters might change over the life of the project that would make the project no longer relevant?’”
“It’s probably a good idea to have real time data gathering with our utilities,” Wilson continued, “but if you can imagine a world where we all have rooftop solar, and the City’s power system is there just as backup because we have batteries in our houses, and power becomes super cheap, would you really want to spend $30, $40, $50 million on building a support infrastructure around a technology that could become obsolete?”
Taking that idea even further, Tornek said, “There is probably isn’t an area in what they call ‘disruptive technologies’ that is developing more rapidly and more profoundly than the whole area of power distribution and consumption. Maybe autonomous cars is the other technology that is moving as rapidly. But, there are these profound changes that are no longer on the distant horizon, but right on top of us.”
“So,” Tornek continued, “when you begin talking about making these kinds of investments double digit millions, and installing new meters, that may all be laughingly obsolete in a very short period of time.”
“The whole paradigm of what a municipal utility like ours could look like,” said Tornek, “could be so dramatically different that it could be almost recognizable.”
Tornek added, however, that he assumed as a young boy, that citizens of earth in 2016, would not own cars, because they would be traveling by jet pack, “so it’s not a slam dunk yet,” he admitted, “but the possibility is very real. I just want to make sure that before we get involved in some gigantic expenditure that might immediately be an obsolete system, that when (PWP) is doing their analysis, that they are including a review of this likely accelerating revolution as it relates to power.”
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