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pay ahead for their electricity based on what they can afford. Because prepaid accounts are discon- nected automatically when their balance reaches zero, participants avoid all disconnect fees. Two- way communicating AMI meters make it possible for LREC to disconnect power remotely without physically unhooking the meter. Approximately 3,000 LREC meters feature remote disconnect or roughly 10 percent of the co-op’s electric system. For those who worry smart meters could be

hacked on site or via cyber penetration, the re- mote disconnect feature is alarming. They claim that in the hands of a nefarious hacker, the ability to disconnect and then reconnect thousands of meters at once could overload the grid. Slim chance that would happen at LREC,

Pleasant counters, adding that those bent on harm are looking to make a much bigger splash. “Even if someone could hack into our meters and remotely disconnect power, which is highly unlikely they could, the number of meters affect- ed is such a slight percentage that it wouldn’t overload us. Our system could handle it,” he explains. Furthermore, physically hacking an automated meter would require intimate knowledge of how a meter is manufactured, including software and firmware configurations, data encryptions and crypto keys, not to mention busting through a multitude of firewalls and other security controls. Because electric co-ops and other utilities depend on meter vendors to provide the most impenetra- ble devices possible, at LREC, anyway, meter vendors are closely vetted. With encouragement from the federal govern- ment, U.S. electric utilities are moving toward smart grid technologies and LREC is following suit.

“Our goal is be 100 percent AMI by 2022,”

Pleasant says. When that happens, LREC meters will com- municate using radio frequency (RF) mesh tech- nology instead of relaying data over power lines. “We don’t see the point in replacing our system with something that’s already outdated. Right now we are limited in the amount of data we can receive using power line carrier. With RF mesh we could read our meters multiple times an hour,” he says.

Like power line carrier, cellular and wireless technology, RF mesh is used to relay information

to and from meters. It works via radio transmit- ters located inside each meter. Data travels from meter to meter in a very fast and efficient manner that is particularly well adapted to LREC’s rough terrain, Pleasant explains. All smart meters using RF mesh are tested and approved by the Federal Communications Comission. LREC’s meters will communicate over a private RF system licensed to the co-op. For utmost protection, meters will communicate within the local network via fre- quency hopping spectrum radio, the preferred method of the U.S. military to prevent eavesdrop- ping and other unwanted interference. Pleasant concedes the more continuous flow of

data over radio waves can be more attractive to cyber hackers, but the benefits far outweigh the risks, he says. “There’s a reason why the U.S. is moving to- ward smart grid technologies and smart meters, and it’s because they hold unparalleled advantag- es for utilities and their consumers regarding re- liability and efficiency,” he points out. The ability to read meters in real time allows a co-op to create rate structures based on patterns of use that are beneficial to the co-op and often more affordable for members. By revealing high and low voltage trends, smarter meters can help a co-op avoid damage to its equipment. They im- prove outage response time by signaling within seconds when a meter is out of power and pin- pointing the source of trouble. For members, the ability to closely monitor their usage online or via in-home display is shown to improve usage habits, a win-win for the member and their co-op. With the many virtues of automation, it’s no wonder utilities nationwide are graduating to smart meters. Electric cooperatives are credited with sparking the development of automated me- ters when they adopted one-way automatic meter reading (AMR) early on. The ability to read me- ters from the office saved electric co-ops hun- dreds of thousands of dollars annually in fuel and labor costs associated with physically reading meters, reducing billing inaccuracies and curtail- ing outright theft of electricity. In the wind-swept plains of the Oklahoma

Panhandle, Tri-County Electric Cooperative (TCEC) well understands the costs involved in serving the few and far between. Switching to AMR in 2008 saved the co-op a half million dol- lars. Today, all of TCEC meters are two-way read.

Travis Holdeman, TCEC director of metering,

SCADA and communications, says TCEC me- ters send data over power lines to the substation. From the sub, data travels to the office via a series of 13 microwave towers scattered throughout the Panhandle. As data flows from the meter to the office, points along the route require cyber au- thentication and firewalls block all unfamiliar signals or data. “A lot of our cyber security measures come into play as data flows from the substation to our of- fice,” Holdeman says. “That’s our lifeline back to the office.” At TCEC, meter security figures prominently in the co-op’s growing realm of cyber security measures. An electric co-op’s rural location may seem an unlikely target for hackers bent on harm, but as Holdeman points out, that’s why co-ops must make security at all levels a top priority. “We think we’re rural, we’re in the middle of nowhere, why would anyone want to harm us? But that’s exactly where a hacker would go,” he says. “They assume it’s the weakest point.” Roughly half of Oklahoma’s electric co-ops are audited every three years by an independent se- curity firm that grades them on a long laundry list of security controls. Audits are performed under- cover to provide the most accurate assessment of office security protocol, data access protection, cyber security, and physical safeguards of offices, server rooms, warehouses and substations. This year, TCEC’s IT team is taking it one step further by performing a security audit of their own, one that will include meter penetration tests. “We plan to do penetration tests from every aspect out in the field,” Holdeman says. “Although our meter data transmits very slowly and no one in their right mind would try to penetrate it, it’s still connected to our office and for that reason alone it should be tested.” TCEC is one co-op that understands they ar- en’t in Mayberry anymore. Security at every level is paramount, and even a small disruption is damaging. “When we think about security, it’s also the integrity of TCEC that’s on the line,” Holdeman explains. “Our members trust we won’t compro- mise their personal data or their electric service. If we aren’t taking steps to prevent that from hap- pening, they lose faith in this co-op. For TCEC, that’s a big issue.”

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is an integrated system of smart meters, communications networks, and data management systems that enables two-way communication between utilities and customers.

JULY 2016 7

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