Power companies are not usually seen as being on the leading edge of technology adoption. But utilities are at the forefront of using wireless systems for a wide range of activities, from managing mobile workforces to reading meters and monitoring plant control systems.

An October 2004 IDC study of wireless adoption in various vertical industries revealed that 33 percent of utility companies had only recently begun implementing mobile or wireless technologies. But the report also noted that the percentage of companies in the utilities sector reporting plans to implement wireless in the next 12 months was greater than the percentages of companies in other industries with similar plans.

The IDC study also reported that the most popular wireless applications for the utilities industry are personal information management applications, remote field-service applications, and inventory and distribution management systems.

"If you did an inventory of all the wireless applications that a typical utility is using, there could be a list of 20 or 30 technologies," including wireless spread spectrum and wireless radios, says Rick Nicholson, vice president of Energy Insights, a market research division of IDC.

But despite the productivity improvements and other advantages that wireless applications have delivered to the U.S. power industry, the systems have also created a new set of challenges. Among other things, "you're asking field workers who typically aren't real IT-savvy to adopt new technologies and to change the way they do their jobs," says Nicholson.

Better reliability in Newark
Sometimes those changes are well received. For example, before Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) equipped just under 2,000 of its field trucks with wireless devices, the Newark based utility had been using radios to dispatch work orders to its crews.

During a storm with multiple power outages, getting work orders out via radio was time-consuming. "It was very tough to dispatch a large volume of work orders over a radio network," says Paul Caffery, manager of asset information and system policy at PSE&G.

PSE&G began rolling out ruggedised CF-28 wireless devices from Panasonic Corporation of North America to its work crews in 2002, and now it's able to dispatch thousands of work orders in a matter of minutes, says Caffery. And while it's tough to measure the direct impact that the use of wireless systems has had on the utility's ability to respond to outages, the company has pared the average duration of power outages from 89.67 minutes in 2000 to 68.81 minutes in 2004, says Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Some utilities have held off on deploying wireless meter-reading systems because of the uncertain reception that the systems would get from their unionised work crews.

For its part, PSE&G is piloting a few different wireless meter-reading systems but has held off on adopting a single system because it isn't yet sold on the cost benefits, says Gregg Peterson, general manager of solutions delivery at PSE&G. "We have upwards of 2 million customers, and upwards of 2 million anything is a big outlay," adds Caffery.

Meters read in Maryland
Other organizations, including the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO), have estimated that an investment in radio-based automated meter readers (AMR) could be cost-effective.

"We did a study on this with a consultant and determined that the optimal mix would be to provide AMR to about 50 percent of our customer base," especially in more densely populated areas, says Joe Trentacosta, vice president and CIO at SMECO.

Currently, the Hughesville based utility reads about 27,000 meters using wireless devices from Itron in Spokane, says Trentacosta. It plans to deploy another 32,000 devices over the next two years, he adds.

Trentacosta says SMECO is also considering systems that would allow its engineers to map out an electrical infrastructure for a city street or an apartment complex using wireless devices and then upload that data to a computer-aided design system back at headquarters.

Asset tracking in Minneapolis
At Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, warehouse managers have been using wireless devices from Symbol to track gloves, chemicals and other goods and materials it uses at two of its plants, according to Bryan Friehauf, a business technology executive at Xcel in Denver.

Xcel created customised screens for the Symbol devices so that the systems could be integrated with a maintenance application called Maximo from MRO Software, says Friehauf.

Xcel is also testing another wireless application using the Symbol devices that allows instrument control technicians at its power plants to do remote calibration tests on all plant equipment, says Friehauf.

So far, says Friehauf, the inventory management system has delivered the strongest return on investment of all of its wireless initiatives.

"We don't have to spend the dollars to have inventory managers or contractors track plant equipment manually," says Friehauf, who adds that the wireless inventory system should pay for itself within two years.