In 2009, Itron Inc.'s manufacturing facility in West Union, South Carolina was the third largest industrial employer in Oconee County.
Then, the company used a $5.2 million 48C Advanced Manufacturing Tax Credit awarded via the Recovery Act to re-equip the facility and hired 420 additional employees.
"Improving our production capacity allowed us to hire more employees, and the grant from the Recovery Act helped us to accelerate that process," says Lowell Rust, Itron's director of product marketing. Now, the facility is the largest industrial employer in Oconee County, and it is producing enough smart meters to reduce annual electricity use by approximately 1.7 million megawatt hours.
Grant money funds robotics
Itron used the tax credit to install advanced automation equipment at the Oconee facility including state-of-the-art robotics that work directly on the smart meter assembly line. The advanced automation increased the facility's production capacity by 20 percent.
Itron hired an additional 420 employees to complete tasks that could not be automated to maintain the increased rate of production.
"Although the manufacturing line headcount was reduced, overall plant employee numbers increased to meet new demand driven by Recovery Act funding," says Dan Pfeiffer, Itron's vice president of regulatory affairs.
The new employees are working on the factory floor, helping assemble smart meters and performing maintenance on the automation equipment.
Smart meters change behavior
The Oconee facility produces Itron's OpenWay CENTRON smart meter, which company officials say is a key component for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).
AMI is an industry term for electrical grids that can supply detailed data on energy usage to both utilities and consumers.
According to Rust, Itron's smart meters are capable of providing consumers with close to real-time information on their energy consumption and the price they are paying for electricity. This data gives them insight they are accustomed to having in other avenues of consumption.
"When it comes to electric bills, most of today's consumers don't know how much electricity they are buying or how much it costs until the end of the billing period," says Rust. "It's like going to the grocery store and not being told the prices of the items you want to purchase until after checkout."
"Our smart meters give customers simple insight that allows them to make informed decisions and cut back on usage when it gets too expensive," he says.
The smart meters also tell utilities precisely where grid inefficiencies, such as load loss, are occurring, allowing engineers to address these problems and reduce the amount of electricity that is lost in transmission.
Officials from Itron estimate that the number of smart meters being produced at the Oconee facility can reduce electricity use by 1.7 million megawatt hours per year. That's enough electricity to power 52,000 homes for one year.
As smart meters become more prevalent throughout the U.S., Rust says that Itron is committed to developing lean manufacturing and focus factory techniques to deliver quality American-made meters capable of addressing the variety of business challenges commonly faced by utilities around the world.