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Smart revival at GE: New meters, grid offer hope for plant's future growth

SOMERSWORTH - The General Electric plant on Main Street could be at the beginning of a new wave of prosperity fueled by demand for smart grid technology.

The company employs 378 people, which is up from the 220 people it employed there in February 2008, and has three shifts to produce its new line of electronic meters.

Steve Richards, general manager of meters, GE energy, transmission and distribution in Atlanta, Ga., said the company is rolling out more electronic meters that will allow homeowners and businesses to save on energy costs.

"Our next generation of meters will have the ability to communicate with the utility via virtually any transmission method; Wi-Fi, broadband, telecom, radio frequency," Richards said.

Richards said the Somersworth plant is producing smart grid meters that allow consumers to have access to more accurate data and knowledge about electricity pricing, helping them save money and lower their environmental footprint.

"Once the smart meter is installed, it's possible for the smart meter to communicate time-of-use pricing via smart home energy panels to help consumers make smarter energy choices throughout the day," said Richards in a prepared statement e-mailed by GE spokeswoman Allison Eckelkamp in Atlanta, Ga.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and President Barack Obama both expressed their support for smart meters and smart grid technology in October.

Shaheen announced last month the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative in Plymouth was awarded more than $15 million for new smart grid modernization through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which has set aside $3.4 billion for smart grid technology development.

"With high electricity rates in the Northeast, it is critical that we support the development of technologies that will help families and small businesses save on their electric bills," said Shaheen in a prepared statement.

She said the money will be used by the cooperative to modernize the distribution and metering system by deploying advanced smart meters for all 75,000 members. She said they will install a robust telecom network to achieve high speed two-way communication between electricity suppliers and electricity consumers throughout their service territory.

President Obama also said the country's energy future is linked to the continued development and use of smart meters during an appearance he made at Florida Power & Light Co.'s DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Fla.

"...even as Florida Power & Light is bringing this solar plant online today, it also is deploying hundreds of thousands of these smart meters in people's homes throughout Florida. Much like the Recovery through Retrofit plan we launched last week to boost the weatherization and retrofit industry, these devices will help you greatly improve the energy efficiency in your own home," Obama said.

Richards said consumers will be able to buy their electricity during off-peak pricing periods and pay less. He said a yearlong study by the U.S. Department of Energy showed real-time pricing information provided by the smart meter helped consumers reduce their electricity costs 10 percent on average and their peak consumption by 15 percent.

Richards would not disclose GE's sales figures for its electronic meters in 2008. But, he said, the market has great potential.

Now, the meter market for all meters is somewhere around eight million units per year. "Expecting the stimulus package is as effective as we assume, we see the market growing," Richards said in the e-mail.

He said in 2010, GE officials believe the market will grow to 16 million smart metering units. In 2011, he said the market is expected to grow to 17 million units, and in 2012 he said the market could grow to 20 million units per year.

But like other companies, General Electric is doing its best to weather the economic storm.

The company's corporate headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., released its third quarter earnings report in October that showed earnings of $2.5 billion, which is down nearly 51 percent from 2008 third quarter earnings.

Dating back to the 1950s, General Electric had long been one of the city's most dominant employers and provided full-time jobs that paid good wages. There were many city and area residents who worked there for 20, 30 and 40 years before they retired.

Workers' cars filled the plant's spacious parking lot overlooking the Salmon Falls River and lined Main Street during all three shifts. Downtown businesses, restaurants and other shops thrived from the constant flow of people who arrived at the plant and headed home after work.

Real Roseberry, 78, a Somersworth native, said he was 22 years old when he went to work at GE in 1953 as a machine operator. He worked there for 34 1⁄2 years before he retired in 1987. Roseberry said he worked there as a stock man and then in the plant's tool crib where he supplied tools and parts to the machinists.

"The most we had was 2,100 and it was bustling," Roseberry said.

He recalled there were workers on all six floors and some of them worked on transformers and others worked on the electric meters.

"If you got there at a quarter to 7 (a.m.) before the shift started, you couldn't find a parking space," Roseberry recalled.

Roseberry said his wife also worked at GE for more than 20 years.

"In the early 60s, it was beautiful," Roseberry recalled, and there was always plenty of overtime.

The emergence of the global economy in the 1990s took its toll on the facility as GE pared down the workforce through a series of layoffs during that decade and the early 2000s as some of its operations shifted to plants in Mexico.

Craig Wheeler, who serves as the director of development services at City Hall, believes the fact that General Electric is still operating in Somersworth is a testament to the area's skilled workforce, which gives the company stronger quality control than it may experience at some of its foreign plants.

"That's what I see as our strength, the quality of our workforce," Wheeler said.

Much like other businesses during the current economic downturn, Wheeler said GE has been reinventing itself so it can once again be one of the city's major employers.