Winston Meyer Welcomes Challenges of Gas Measurement

November 2010 Vol. 237 No. 11

Jeff Share, Editor

When it comes to gas measurement, the technology is as varied as the multitude of challenges that face this important sector of the utility industry. Winston C. Meyer is a well-known gas measurement guru who plies his trade with CenterPoint Energy in Houston.

A graduate of Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering, Meyer is the manager of Gas Measurement and Gas Control for CenterPoint’s gas measurement operations. Because his job involves integrating technology and bringing advancements to gas measurement, Meyer has been active with manufacturers and industry associactions for more than 30 years. He is now focused on electronic instrumentation for gas supply needs, loss and unaccounted-for reporting efforts, technician training, automated meter reading and resource management. No industry conference seems complete without Meyer, who has won numerous awards of merit including the prestigious AGA Acker Medal and Award. He is active in the AGA’s Distribution Measurement Committee and is a board member of the American School of Gas Measurement Technology.

In an interview with P&GJ, Meyer talked about the gas measurement business from a utility’s perspective, including the hot topic of smart metering and where the measuremnet specialists of tomorrow will come from. Whoever they are, those fortunate enough to have the native Texan as their mentor will have bright futures ahead of them.

P&GJ: Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in your discipline as a career? What was the career path that led to your current position with CenterPoint Energy?
Born and raised near San Antonio, TX during the early ’60s. The influence of the space program, area military bases, and (what was then) science fiction left quite an appetite for technology. I can remember a sixth-grade teacher asking what we’d be doing in 30 years. I wrote a paper about being the first scientist on Mars. Math and science were always my strengths and it seemed natural to pursue an engineering degree.

Once employed in this industry, the technology challenges of measurement were intriguing and continued to keep my technical appetite lively. Although the ideal gas laws are fairly basic, the equipment, control, and art of its application have continually presented our industry with opportunities. I have had the pleasure to work with many technical research, manufacturer, and industry-based groups over the years. Each has provided a growth experience and challenged our thought processes to reach out and advance our gas-measurement operations.

P&GJ: What differences do you expect to see between the measurement technologies in use today and those we can expect to see in the next five to ten years? Would you expect to see growing emphasis on “real-time” measurement (made available to all who need it).
We are building a vision of the future LDC by leveraging communication and technology. Today’s consumers are far more demanding of information, data, and safety aspects. For tomorrow’s LDCs, the challenge is to provide real-time feedback and to build on a gas automation strategy that can capture abnormal operational conditions while enhancing safety, and to provide the consumer with ready access to their consumption and cost requirements.

Technology has provided consumers with an abundance of information at our fingertips; however, LDC operations are still for the most part viewed as presenters of monthly bills and call center interactions. With some exceptions for curtailment and larger user interfaces, LDCs simply don’t have an infrastructure to support the gathering of information on a real-time basis. Although some companies have deployed electronic devices on meters to enhance meter-reading efforts, the efforts focused mainly on data retrieval.

Current technologies have the potential to change the way we conduct business in the future. Extended battery life and advances in electronics are enabling manufacturers to offer us some interesting alternatives. The industry is discussing how we can leverage the use of integral valves, two-way communications, fixed networks, sensors, home area networks, and wireless interconnects to enhance our operations and safety concerns.

In the LDC, the meter represents the point of interconnect with the consumer. Companies have already designed valves within the meter to provide remote activation and shut-off. The meter has become the target for the point whereby the industry could aggregate communications and control. The convergence of this technology with the meter offers us an opportunity to adapt alternate metering technologies for both cost efficiency and to enhance deployment of such technologies. Instead of ‘add-on’ devices, our industry will experience a shift in focus and a more adaptive response to measurement alternatives. Therein lays the opportunity for change.

P&GJ: Do you expect the skill set of those responsible for operating and maintaining your measurement systems to be different in the future and, if so, how so? (i.e. more emphasis on computer skills and less on mechanical skills?)
Changes in technology naturally drive changes to the support structure. Building on the gas automation vision, the industry would likely support a replacement approach relative to the meter instead of an electronic circuit repair. That is already evident within our current operations with remotely read indexes. The industry is finding the new measurement technologies, such as ultrasonic meters, to be very stable and capable of sustaining long-term accuracy.

Initial validation of technologies and generation of appropriate standards will help in this area. However, job growth in the areas of communications, deployment, IT support, and service response will be required to maintain the systematic approach necessity for gas automation. I believe the focus will shift from device ‘repair’ to remote auditing and surveillance of the devices to target concerns and issues.

P&GJ: What is your biggest challenge in seeing to it that your system’s measurement accuracy remains at an acceptable level?
Meter performance programs must be continued to meet both regulated and internal controls. As new technologies arise, over-arching standards and performance requirements must be met. The primary standards group for small gas meters in the U.S. is the ANSI B109 Committee. Members have been reviewing the OMIL and international standards in preparation for a performance-based standard on new metering technologies.

Meters will be expected to meet the requirements, and sample/age change programs may be used to judge the long-term accuracies and reliability of the new technologies. Future meters may also incorporate self-checking diagnosis to alert the user of abnormal conditions pertinent to the meter operations. Our challenge is to engage in the design and standards requirements to better understand the metrology of new devices and to assess the meter’s capabilities prior to type acceptance.

P&GJ: Any concerns at your company about the aftermath of what some are calling the “gray tsunami” – the loss of many senior people to retirement over the next five to ten years?  
Sharing technology of both past and present with potential leaders has become commonplace within our work environments. We have joined with other companies in leadership-training programs, advanced technical training, online resources for personal improvements, and provided opportunities for potential leaders to chair teams and activities.

We are training and preparing via emersion and tasking our employees to participate in industry activities. The question we all have is retention of those we are investing in. As mentors to our future leaders, we have responsibilities to help others develop and learn, to share our experiences, and to help them find personal satisfaction in their job roles.

P&GJ: Although the greenhouse gas (GHG) legislation is still in flux, how will the proposed changes affect measurement practices?
Measurement practices have long been focused on the accuracy and reliability of the measurement device. After all, it is the industry’s ‘cash register’. Having good records and operations procedures are paramount for the wealth and health of our companies. The added reporting requirements being discussed relative to GHG and fugitive emissions changes neither the root of the measurement nor our measurement practices, but it can add a significant cost burden to the LDC in the form of other operational requirements.

The effect of CO-2e and potential mandated reductions will create burdens on the LDCs either by usage offsets or operational reductions of fugitive emissions, both of which will burden the end user with rates and tariffs. As this is still a developing topic, we are advised to remain attentive and to be active in our efforts to maintain good measurement practices.

P&GJ: Where does the LDC segment stand in the implementation of smart meters and what are some issues that are unique to LDCs?
In a futuristic gas automation vision, the smart meter could offer itself as the hub of communications. Not only provide for utilitarian processes of billing and system operations, but to be part of an enhanced safety and emergency response system based on in-home monitors. Image a process that allows a LDC to remotely detect leaks, either at the home or in the area, and to have the ability to remotely shut off gas to help limit leakage. Or to add to our processes an ability to re-establish service while monitoring flow rate, pressure, and usage.

The list of potential consumer benefits is extensive and could include: pre-paid processes, usage history, cost controls, emergency communications, and many additional features. Implementation of smart meters is still in its infancy. LDCs and manufacturers are in deep discussions of how to best design communication, IT structures, processes, and deployments. While technology can be created, business case and cost are at the forefront of every discussion. LDCs will need regulatory support and understanding of the potential benefits of smart meters and gas automations.

The process of implementation is basically akin to starting over in building the distribution network, or overlaying another informational network onto our distribution system. These efforts of change must have clear objectives and plans prior to starting such programs. The extent of the issue is more than tacking on added devices; there will be infrastructure changes to contend with and personnel training to help support such a vision. We continue to discuss, demonstrate, educate, and envision what that could be.

P&GJ: What does the future hold for smart gas metering at the residence and small business? Will there be time-of-day pricing for homeowners and small businesses? How would such a process work and what will the capability do to upstream volume contracts?
Information empowers actions and data provides insight for future behavior. Smart meters will help form the landscape on which the future LDC could operate. I believe the advantages of smart meters will reshape how consumers view the gas industry and realize benefits through enhanced safety and emergency response. As an operator, we are constantly aware of the hazards and how much the public depends on us to maintain safely operated systems. As for rate-making decisions, natural gas production, storage, and control are primarily limited only by our delivery system or piping network. The process of scheduling gas purchases and supplies will be enhanced with more real-time data and information and should provide added resources to track gas flows and nominations, thus helping to avoid imbalances and penalties.

For the residential and small-business consumers, there is such a seasonal influence on usage and load patterns that time-of-use pricing might not translate well to the gas industry unless we have some constrained delivery systems. Our industry already focuses on capacity curtailments and alternative fuel options to help manage our delivery systems. Monitoring usage and cost will definitely be an advantage to fixed and low-income consumers. Having ready knowledge of usage patterns and ready access to cost controls (such as pre-paid accounts) will be providing options for the consumer.

Account management can be enhanced for consumers. Interfaces via networked systems can provide consumers with payment options, automated turn-on/off, emergency messaging, safety and public education messages. The LDC systems can track usage and provide notices to the consumer on pre-paid status or allow the consumer to remotely control the gas usage while away from their premises. The challenge for smart metering and gas automation will certainly task our IT infrastructure to maintain a ready state on the system.

P&GJ: What other technological issues or challenges are of concern to those involved in gas measurement?
Our primary challenges are the speed of change in technology and to gain both application and operative support issues. What was once almost entirely a mechanical stand-alone metering process has become embedded with electronics, installation concerns, configuration, data transfer, communications, and training. We must integrate our actions with supporting groups and stay abreast of worldwide influences.

The ‘real-time’ nature of measurement and monitoring thereof calls for a close integral relationship between the measurement and data processes. Faulty installations and communications problems will have almost immediate consequences and must be dealt with quickly. For gas automation to be successful for the company and the consumer, proper checks and balances will need to be created. Also, a thorough understanding of the networks, security risks, and deployment must exist for the safety and emergency response systems to function appropriately.

P&GJ: Is gas distribution measurement ready for heat-content measurement, regulation and pricing?
Many LDCs already bill on a therm basis using volumetric measurement and then applying applicable heat content values from supply points or defined geographic zones. Direct energy measurement at the residential level is cost-prohibitive at present. As regulatory agencies review cost controls and rates, the cost to render appropriate volumetric data commensurate with rate designs will be a primary driving factor on such a conversion.

P&GJ: How have you seen the natural gas industry change since you began your career, especially in terms of measurement practices?
I joined the petroleum industry in 1973. The industry for both the production and distribution systems was primarily mechanical. Electronics was almost non-existent on controls and field-based equipment. Recently, a group of colleagues and I were reminiscing about the processes we have today. A typical desktop PC has more processing power than our mainframes had. Orifice meters represented the primary high-pressure measurement and flow records were recorded on charts. All processes were monthly oriented, and results were typically not known for two weeks until after ‘close’. Contracts were full service, long-term-based and not difficult to management.

The measurement landscape changed dramatically in the late ’80s with the advent of FERC Order 636 and the open-access provisions. RTUs and flow computers were adapted to large delivery points and we began to watch our daily supplies much closer. New technologies and learning transitions created opportunities. Measurement research was revamped as European markets opened further and we saw the development of research groups grow. Today our landscape of measurement is still soundly based on principles of old; however, the business climate has challenged our minds to deploy new ‘real-time’ devices and to gather accurate and reliable information faster than ever. Gone is the time when we had time to process and review information. Data is now consider live and processed, with review and audits following.

P&GJ: How does a utility’s measurement practices and expertise influence a company’s financial picture perhaps in terms of shareholder value?
Ethical and responsible behavior is the primary key to all of our measurement activities. Acting with regard to render what is right for both the consumer and the company by providing accurate measurement. We continually strengthened our measurement processes and material selections. Mistakes and material failure do occur, and being forthright in our approaches and corrective processes is paramount to generating trust with the consumers, regulatory bodies, and our shareholders.

We have been fortunate to have measurement expertise embedded in several segments of our company. It is not all about the physical meter, but involves a vast array of supporting roles. Our LDC measurement practices blend these talents to construct proper billing to our consumers and to provide resources to arbitrate and audit the results. Being connected with the accuracy of the data and remaining ethical in our behavior established the creditability of the company with all parties and provides a basis or foundation to the organization’s value. It is a fiduciary responsibility based on technical strengths and understanding.

P&GJ: How do times of economic slowdowns such as we’ve gone through affect a utility’s measurement practices? Is more attention paid to this area or less?
Definitely more attention is focused on measurement during slow economic periods. From the LDC point of view, we experience more bad debt situations and collection concerns. Challenges to our measurement processes become more frequent as consumers become more cost-conscience. As an LDC, we constantly seek cost-efficiency and target processes for review. Economic slowdowns afford us the opportunity to review and plan ahead. Subjects such as smart meters, safety enhancement, emergency response, pre-paid processes, and other valuable processes become more enlightened as a means to deal with the economic structure of our business.

I’ll compare the process to our cardio system. We run fast and speed up our systems. We task the body to perform at high levels to build and strengthen ourselves. On cool down, we assess our abilities, plan our next moves, and contemplate our plans for the next exercise. Our measurement processes have a similar behavior pattern, except that we can change the parts to provide better performance, reliability, and to provide better data for the next onslaught. Slow economic times may reduce our capital requirements, but also presents a definite time for reflection and planning.

P&GJ: What do you think is the next major chapter to be written in gas measurement?
The road map at present has us preparing performance-based standards for future new metering technologies. Our past efforts have documented a known technology and then built standards on their performance. As mentioned earlier, the speed of technology change has increased so dramatically and we can no longer afford to study a technology for 10 years prior to confirming it with a written document or standard. We need to be alert to the changing landscape in gas measurement, to build on the technical accuracy and reliability of our predecessors, while creating a business climate that can rely on the accuracy of the root data.

Our task is to provide solid reliable gas measurement in a real-time environment and to gain near-instant recognition of abnormal conditions that can render false measurement or operational concerns. As LDCs, we are building a vision of gas automation that revolves around the meter and its functions, so we must open our minds and embrace new thoughts while seeking the answer to a single question: “How do you know you’re right?”

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