A Tennessee Public Utility Looks Back on Five Years with AMI
By Eric Egan, Chief Data Officer, BrightRidge
and Peter Londa, CEO, Tantalus
Today’s utilities are facing greater challenges as distributed energy resources become more common and customer expectations skyrocket. To support this new energy network, many utilities are implementing smart meters and AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) to streamline operations. But apart from the promises of advanced communication, what is the actual value realized from AMI?
BrightRidge, a public, not-for-profit electric utility located in Tennessee, is unique in that its leadership has sifted through five years of performance data to understand where AMI has added value to its distribution service. BrightRidge adopted an AMI system in 2010 to meet a requirement to support time-of-use rates. The utility serves approximately 77,000 metered customers across a variety of landscapes, including urban, rural and mountainous terrain, and is a part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an organization that generates electricity for 9 million people across seven southeastern states.
To best meet the needs of BrightRidge’s diverse service territory, the utility chose to implement the Tantalus Utility Network AMI system because of the company’s ability to tailor a communications solution to meet the utility’s unique needs. BrightRidge currently uses two frequencies for AMI operations—a 900MHz frequency for the local service territory and a high-range 220MHz frequency for rural and mountainous areas. AMI system deployment began in 2010 and was completed in 2012 along with the implementation of a new meter data management system (MDMS). Later, BrightRidge also integrated fiber-based connectivity into its AMI network.
When BrightRidge deployed the TUNet AMI system, one immediate benefit was the streamlined handling of transfer of service (TOS) orders. These orders occur when customers move into and out of their homes and occur more than 10,000 times in BrightRidge’s service territory each year.
Before AMI, TOS orders were printed and handled manually during site visits by field teams. This was a costly process because of both the high number of site visits and amount of administrative work required. With AMI, site visits are completely eliminated. Between 2012 and 2017, BrightRidge filled over 65,000 TOS orders electronically, saving 65,000 site visits and approximately $3.25 million in a little over 5 years.
Electronic TOS orders have transformed BrightRidge’s business. With AMI, BrightRidge employees no longer create orders manually and wait for replies from field teams. Instead, billing personnel simply take the last midnight reading from the MDMS, a practice that eliminates site visits and offers a clean and consistent point of transition for the customers moving in and out.
The benefits of avoided site visits are doubled with service disconnect and reconnect orders. Using strategically deployed meters with integrated service disconnect switches, the AMI system can issue commands to disconnect and reconnect service remotely and avoid two separate site visits for each disconnect/reconnect combination. Since 2014, BrightRidge has executed 14,871 remote disconnects and reconnects. All of these would have required site visits before AMI deployment, but BrightRidge now can handle about 30 percent of disconnect and reconnect orders remotely, despite having meters with this capability on only a small fraction of customers. That number grows each year as BrightRidge deploys more meters with these remote capabilities.
The number of disconnect and reconnect site visits that BrightRidge has avoided may be higher than those recorded due to a change in customer behavior related to the AMI rollout. Customers have learned that BrightRidge can now disconnect their electricity without a site visit and are more likely to pay their bill. BrightRidge leadership also believes that the length of time that a customer is disconnected may have gone down as a result of AMI. Since AMI installation, it is not uncommon for BrightRidge to send in a disconnection order and then quickly receive a payment from a customer before the order is completed.
AMI cuts the delay out of utility operations and increases customer satisfaction with faster reconnection services. Disconnected customers who bring their accounts back up to date previously had to wait until a technician could come out and reconnect them. BrightRidge provides 24/7 reconnection service, but for a customer without power, any delay can be frustrating. Now, BrightRidge can reward customers by reconnecting them almost immediately to create a more pleasant customer experience and reduce off-hours site visits for employees.
Another benefit of AMI is the enhanced ability to detect meter tampering and quantify diverted kWh. In 2012, 174 incidents were detected, with a total of 34,227 diverted kWh. Since then, BrightRidge has moved beyond tamper detection to tamper prevention. Today, the number of incidents is down to about half of those experienced in 2012. The utility has seen a reduction in diverted kWh of more than 80 percent, a change that is believed to be due to customer education. Customers have learned that BrightRidge’s meters are now “smart” and that the utility follows up on 100 percent of alarms. BrightRidge takes energy diversion seriously and applies fees for tampering with a meter.
A decrease in Investigate Still Off Orders, triggered when a smart meter shows kWh consumption from a meter that is in an inactive and installed state, also demonstrates BrightRidge’s proactive tamper prevention. The AMI system sends meter interval data to the head end every hour and quickly identifies anomalies in inactive meters to trigger a site visit. Sometimes the anomaly is caused by faulty equipment, which can be easily detected and corrected, but sometimes it is due to tampering. Today, Investigate Still Off Orders are almost non-existent, saving over 1,000 site visits per year. This is due to a combination of on-request reads, remote service disconnects and customer education. Word has spread that if a customer connects his or her own service, it won’t take long for BrightRidge to find out and take action.
BrightRidge saves an additional 3,000 site visits per year through the reduction in Re-Read/Investigate Orders (triggered when a meter reading shows some anomaly, like an unexpected and sudden jump in consumption). Re-Read/Investigate Orders require a site visit, but the number of these orders has dropped substantially through daily reporting and remote meter reading capabilities. Site visits now often lead to the discovery of a deeper issue, like an equipment failure or a tampering attempt. Before AMI, these anomalies were harder to identify and diagnose for customers.
The biggest change that AMI has enabled is rapid and efficient anomaly detection and resolution. AMI quickly detects out-of-the-ordinary changes in a consumer’s energy consumption and proactively notifies customers of these changes before they receive a surprising bill. With AMI, BrightRidge has a better understanding of customers’ loads and can better identify past and current energy deviations and determine what caused them.
Transfer of Service Orders, Disconnects & Reconnects, Re-Read/Investigate Orders and Investigate Still Off Orders add up to about 20,000 avoided site visits per year with TUNet AMI, translating to an estimated $1 million in savings annually. In addition to these savings, the streamlining of BrightRidge’s back-office operations enabled utility employees to learn and perform complex and valuable maintenance tasks including splicing fiber, installing wireless internet service and performing maintenance on AMI sites and water heaters.
BrightRidge’s own Take a Load Off (TALO) program, launched in 2013, is a real win-win for both the utility and its customers. As a member of the TVA, BrightRidge must pay a monthly peak demand charge based on the highest one-hour system demand for electricity. Through the TALO program, BrightRidge reduces this monthly charge while making heating water more affordable for customers.
In exchange for allowing BrightRidge to install a load control switch on their water heater, customers receive a rebate and enrollment in a water heater maintenance program. This system allows BrightRidge to leverage AMI to shed load when a demand peak is expected and reduce the associated TVA charge. Because BrightRidge uses load management devices that communicate on TUNet’s AMI network, the TALO program was rolled out with little or no additional communication infrastructure. The demand the utility is able to control—and shed when needed—now represents 2.5 MW and 5,000 TALO installations. The initiative now shows a net savings of over $200,000 per year with expected cumulative savings of $7.8 million through 2031. Customers on the program don’t notice any difference in their hot water availability, and they love the guaranteed maintenance that is performed by trusted BrightRidge AMI employees.
For BrightRidge, AMI has delivered fewer and shorter outages and heightened customer and employee satisfaction. $1.2 million per year in cost savings, plus a greater than 80 percent reduction in diverted kWh. All that is impressive, but BrightRidge believes that the direct financial savings are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits they’ve realized from their AMI system. BrightRidge leadership believes that every public utility owes it to the community they serve to take advantage of these benefits. AMI has transformed BrightRidge’s business—it’s not a question of whether or not a utility can afford to implement AMI, it’s an understanding that modern utilities can’t afford not to install it.
Author Eric Egan is the chief data officer for BrightRidge, an energy authority serving over 78,000 electric customers in East Tennessee. He has been with the company for eight years and provides leadership for the BrightRidge AMI and billing departments.
Peter Londa is Tantalus’ president, CEO and board member. Prior to joining Tantalus, he served as CEO of BPL Global, Ltd., a smart grid company delivering technology solutions to electric utilities. In 2013, Londa was instrumental in executing the sale of BPL Global to a division of the Danaher Corp.