Tennessee Electric Cooperative Shapes Customer Opinion Before Smart Meter Deployment

by Patrick Jordan, Duck River Electric Membership Corp.

Tennessee electric cooperative Duck River Electric Membership Corp. (EMC) made sure its members reacted positively when it deployed its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).

But it took proactive efforts, including magazine articles, social media, letters and face-to-face communication. Duck River EMC also was transparent when it explained to its customers the benefits of conservation voltage reduction (CVR) and how AMI could help control system power costs, which translates to affordable electricity rates.

Duck River EMC is a nonprofit, member-owned self-governing entity based in Shelbyville, which is between Nashville and Chattanooga. Its board is elected by those who receive the power, so satisfying members is its highest priority.

“The successful 78-year history of electric co-ops has been based on the fact that the member-owner has a voice and a vote, and this keeps us on our toes,” said Michael Watson, president and CEO of Duck River EMC.

Its approach to smart grid had to be significantly customer-oriented.

“This affected our choice of technology, deployment and the ultimate goals we set,” Watson said. “At the end of the day, we must justify our decisions through greater efficiencies and operating cost savings. What we do also must appeal to the members-it can’t work any other way.”

The co-op began discussing how best to frame AMI advantages for various segments of its membership.

AMI Field Trial

The field trial deployment of residential AMI meters for CVR included 50 electric accounts. These particular members received letters in which the co-op explained the overall AMI program and its benefits.

The advantages include flexible options through prepay, which allows customers to use smartphones and computers to pay in advance for services as opposed to receiving monthly bills. With varied payment options, customers can enjoy the freedom of when and how to pay their bills. In addition, prepay helps customers with limited budgets, credit issues and transient lifestyles avoid deposits and charges for service connects and disconnects. Another advantage is that on average, residential customers can save 10 percent by becoming more conscious of their energy consumption.

The field trial invitation letters did more than just explain AMI benefits; the letters invited members to contact Duck River EMC project leaders with questions or comments. Not a single member opted out of the field trial.

“Geek” Meters

Duck River EMC knew that as with other technology, early adopters were key and that getting its members to accept the new meters might be difficult. It labeled the meters “geek” meters.

The co-op didn’t actually market them as geek meters, but the term helped its employees realize the importance of member acceptance when rolling out such a program.

As engineers and distribution industry professionals, employees knew they couldn’t overlook this critical component. The co-op was presenting a cutting-edge technology in basically a utility micro-environment, saying, “Use this! It’s great and the latest whiz-bang stuff!” But it had to remember, many customers never learned to program their VCRs back in the day. Could Duck River EMC overcome this in the 21st century with market segments that are more diverse than 20 years ago?

Steve Oden, director of member services at Duck River EMC believed the co-op should appeal first to its wired and wireless tech-savvy members who would welcome AMI. The geek meter campaign was born. (The co-op officially refers to the meters as advanced digital meters.)

The co-op decided to offer geek meters to residential customers who wanted more data and control of their electricity use. “Along with our digital outreach to members via the Web and social media, we set a goal of making routine transactions possible without ever having to visit our offices,” Oden said. “Of course, this includes allowing online bill payment and service applications, but also via a mobile app giving co-op members the ability to set alerts, check their billing history and, with AMI, view data that was never available before.”

As Duck River EMC implemented AMI and smart grid technology to early adopters, other members requested smart meters so they too could access information to become more energy efficient.

“It’s all about providing information that can help consumers understand and control their power use and, hopefully, lower their electric bills,” Oden said. “Some of our members are beginning to request these meters. There is certainly greater awareness. We are building consensus about a technology that has benefits on different levels, from system operations to the end user.”

The geek meters will become integral to Duck River EMC’s demand response and energy efficiency programs going forward, Oden said.

“We have a voluntary residential DR program based on emails and text messaging that has grown to almost 14,000 households,” he said. “Our engagement rate is greater than 80 percent for peak events. AMI will give us the numbers on how much peak shaving we achieve for every activation, which in turn will help us make the program more effective.”

Oden said that conversely, members who participate will have access to usage data so they can see the effects of dialing down their thermostats by 3 degrees on a hot, humid Tennessee afternoon.

Smart grid technology combined with smart devices on the customer side of the meter-thermostats, appliances, even smart water heaters-open doors to new relationships between the utility and its customers.

Smart Grid Progression

Although keeping up with the ever-changing technological landscape can be challenging, investing in smart grid technology has proved wise. Like many cooperatives, Duck River EMC needed a comprehensive, functional approach to upgrading its systems that would not take years to build and would not require an overwhelming investment. It chose AT&T to provide smart grid solutions that required minimal investment of capital and time.

The co-op has seen the ability to use the real-time feedback of voltages from the meters to implement a CVR program in which it has reduced the operating voltage on the substation 4.8 percent. This reduction will benefit all its members as it carries the deployment forward.

The benefits don’t stop there. Since deploying various smart grid solutions, Duck River EMC has increased network speed and dependability, reduced costs and improved overall customer service.

AT&T Smart Grid solutions have provided many benefits, thanks to key components such as cellular-based smart meters, sensors and meter data management, along with full project integration and project management.

By avoiding tremendous financial and resource investment, the co-op renewed its focus on delivering the best service to its members. It can fix issues faster. Smart grid solutions such as AMI help it take immediate action when devices send notifications that electricity is lost or voltage levels are abnormal.

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