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Greenville Business Magazine

Meet the Oconee County company that manufactures the devices monitoring your home’s electricity usage

Nov 07, 2018 09:32AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By John Jeter

Westinghouse. General Electric. Sangamo. Sanga-who? No sooner did Thomas Edison turn the lights on than he had the bright idea people should pay for electricity. The first two companies built meters and generated immeasurable power. The third, a lesser-known brand name to be sure, still manufactures the gizmos that measure how power’s consumed.

Welcome to Itron, the 21st-century iteration of Sangamo Electric Co., founded in 1899 as a division of an Illinois pocket-watch company. Today, were it not for Itron and its sprawling plant an hour west of Greenville, most of the U.S. would likely be in the dark about its electricity usage.

“We are operating in a space which we consider to be highly valuable in terms of contributing to the way we manage resources in the world, the way we manage water, the way we manage electricity and gas,” says Mike Higgins, senior operations manager at the plant in rural Oconee County.

The plant annually manufactures 5 million “smart meters,” which share data with utility companies, and 3.5 million “one-way communication devices.” Itron’s 315,000-square-foot facility lies tucked along Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway in West Union.

The vast array of devices — those glass bubbles — “are ones that sit on the side of your house and ones that sit on the side of McDonald’s and ones that sit at a power station,” Higgins says.

Adds Leslie Thrasher, product manager for OpenWay at Itron, an advanced meter used in smart-grid initiatives: “Seventy-five percent of the power in the U.S. touches our technology.”

Itron arrived in Oconee in 1962. Today, the plant belongs to a Washington-based company with $2 billion in annual revenues, 8,000 employees, and 8,000 customers, largely utilities, in 100 countries.

Some 1,400 utilities deploy more than 64 million endpoints on Itron’s Global Managed Services network, which performs 227 million reads daily. That is, they calculate your electric bill — and do much more. Essentially small, networked computers, most now are bi-directional, essentially Internet-of-Things components that generate Big Data.

“At the end of the day, we’re providing information so that utilities can analyze the performance of their infrastructure, and they can be very much more proactive in the way that they manage that infrastructure,” Higgins says.

It all comes down to resource management, the force behind “America’s Smart Cities.” 

In 2015, a $160 million federal research initiative sought to make cities, well, smarter. While admirable in urban-planning, environmental and family-wallet circles, the movement is also creating a vast business opportunity for tech companies, including Itron. The “smart cities market” is expected to reach a $2.7 trillion valuation by 2025, according to Grand View Research, a San Francisco-based analytics firm.

“Certainly there’s a lot of drive for smart cities,” Thrasher says. “We are already producing and selling a network, and have been, to utilities. Why wouldn’t we partner with smart cities?”

Itron already does. Just up the road, Envision Charlotte, a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership, launched in 2010 to make the Queen City’s urban core more energy- and cost-efficient. Among its many other collaborators are Duke Energy, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Intel, and Siemens. 

“A lot of cities say they want to reduce energy use by 20 percent, but how do you measure it? How do you know whether anything works? Measuring is huge for us,” Envision Charlotte’s Executive Director Amy Aussieker told Government Technology magazine in March 2017.

Enter Itron’s smart meters, installed on more than 60 large buildings there and generating a mother lode of granular data. Another publication, GreenTech Media, reported that even with the city’s low energy prices and abundant water, Charlotte saved $10 million in the program’s first few years.

“And yet,” an Itron survey says, “we can do so much more.”

That’s from the company’s annual “Resourcefulness Index,” whose 2018 edition calls for the “wise and careful use of vital resources.”

“When people around the world struggle to provide drinking water for their families, how can we justify allowing a third of all pumped water to be lost to leaks? When families are unable to pay their heating and cooling bills in an age of record temperature extremes, how can we tell them that the world wastes twice as much energy as it uses every year?”

The study, an analysis of international trends in energy and water usage, surveys consumers and utilities executives on five continents in 10 countries including Australia, India, Singapore, Canada, and the United States, among others.

“Half of consumer respondents believe their utilities are wasteful — don’t do a good job managing the delivery of energy and water — and these respondents are worried about the threats posed by waste and inefficiency,” the report says. 

Percentage-wise, roughly as many executives say they don’t believe their utilities are operating efficiently — “a problem that risks damaging consumer satisfaction, threatens utilities’ ability to meet demand, and can lead to higher business costs.” At the same time, incidentally, 70 percent of execs call smart-city solutions a high priority.

Closer to home, the manufacturer helps power Oconee County’s economy. Itron has invested some $80 million in capital and infrastructure improvements in the last decade alone, Higgins says.

In addition, Itron is the county’s third-largest employer, whose 1,000 full- and part-time workers include two dozen with master’s degrees and seven with doctorates. 

Moreover, Higgins says, “The workforce that we have here is certainly long-tenured, with about 15 years’ seniority on average. People in this area tend to be very loyal. They’re very hard-working. They’re very committed. We’ve never really found difficulty in obtaining a qualified workforce.”

Itron’s product hits even closer to home.

“Let me give you an example,” Thrasher says during an interview on a hot, humid August day. “We’ve been having these afternoon thunderstorms. In my neighborhood, we had lots of limbs down, trees down, power lines and transformers down, and within five minutes, the utility trucks were rolling into the neighborhood because they had instantaneous notification that the power was out.”

Oh, and how did they know that?

“If you have Duke Energy, you have an Itron meter on the side of your house.”