Acquiring and Analyzing Customer Usage Data—Utilities Find Innovative Uses for AMR

By Steven M. Brown
Associate Editor

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The electric meter serves as the primary touchpoint between the electric utility and the electric utility customer. Whether that customer is commercial, industrial or residential, the usage monitored by electric meters has tremendous value to the utility. Automatic meter reading (AMR) technology has promised to make the retrieval and analysis of that customer usage data easier, less expensive and more accurate, but the electric utility industry, by and large, has been slow to adopt AMR. Cost justification is likely the main reason for the trepidation utilities experience when thoughts turn to large-scale AMR implementations-and with good reason. AMR implementations require a sizable upfront investment.

But a growing number of forward-thinking utilities have found AMR’s upfront cost to be a small price to pay for the potential value the technology can provide in terms of accurate billing, improved customer service and operational efficiency. The value of AMR is being felt throughout the enterprise at utilities, small and large alike. From relatively large utilities like Ameren UE (approximately 1.3 million gas and electric customers) to relatively small utilities like People’s Electric Cooperative in Oklahoma (approximately 17,000 customers), AMR is doing more than reading hard-to-reach meters at a low per-read cost. Utilities such as these are acquiring customer data via their AMR systems and are putting that data to work. While utilities continue to use AMR for the more traditional purposes of billing customers for usage, they also are uncovering AMR’s more innovative functionality, applying it to load management and curtailment, customer energy management, outage detection, and field asset optimization.

Acquiring AMR Data

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For customer usage data to be of any value, it first must be obtained, and to realize the data’s true functionality, it must be obtained in a timely, consistent manner. AMR has made that timely and accurate acquisition of data possible. Prior to AMR’s emergence, operational utilization of customer usage data was either impossible or unfeasible. Manual monthly reads, estimated reads or customer self-reads, cannot provide the accuracy or timeliness necessary for load management, outage management or any of the other more innovative AMR applications utilities are beginning to embrace (see Figure 1).

The latest AMR industry research from Chartwell Inc. (“The Chartwell AMR Report 2000, 5th Edition”) shows that utilities continue to use a number of media and technologies to acquire data from customers’ meters. According to Chartwell’s research, mobile radio and inbound and outbound telephone are the technologies most often preferred for AMR data acquisition (see Figure 2). Outbound telephone has experienced the most noticeable increase in use over the last two years, while inbound telephone use has dropped slightly (3 percent) and mobile radio use has dropped moderately (10 percent), according to the report. The report’s authors attribute the popularity of these three technologies to the fact that “Utilities continue to take the ‘surgical’ approach to AMR and are hooking up commercial/industrial customers and hard-to-read meters.”

While the Chartwell report shows only 7 percent of utilities committed to or considering powerline communications (PLC) technologies for AMR data acquisition, the most recent “Trials and Installations” report from the Automatic Meter Reading Association (AMRA) shows an increase in PLC use among new AMR trials and installations. Nearly half (46 percent) of the utilities listed in the AMRA report, which included projects either launched or significantly altered since the beginning of the year, are using PLC-based AMR systems.

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The medium utilized to obtain AMR data often is dictated not by cost, but by the application the utility intends for the data. If the meter data is being utilized only for monthly billing purposes, a radio-based drive-by acquisition method will suffice. Large-scale industrial customer energy management requires more frequent polling of the meter. That application would warrant a different data acquisition technology.

As a marketing manager for one of the AMR industry’s leading vendors, Derek Booth of Schlumberger realizes that different applications for customer usage data require different collection methods. “We try to fit the data collection method with the data collection needs for a particular site,” Booth said. “If you’re looking at someone who only needs a monthly read, we have drive-by capabilities. If you require, say, five-minute interval data, you can use a telephone system and have the data stored at the meter until you acquire it. Utilities are finding more and more uses for their metering data, and we can acquire it (the data) very rapidly-almost an instantaneous access to the meter.”

Regardless of the technology employed to access the AMR system, AMR’s full value does not register until the data has been acquired, analyzed and put to use. Empirical evidence would suggest that utilities are beginning to realize that their metering data is useful for more than just billing customers.

Using Data in the Field

St. Louis-based Ameren UE serves as a prime example of a utility that has realized the operational value of its AMR-derived data. Through the use of an innovative “system load snapshot” program, Ameren is better able to determine whether or not its transformers are being utilized efficiently. According to Mark Konya, a professional engineer in Ameren Services’ distribution engineering department, the utility will realize significant savings as a result of the program.

Ameren UE co-developed the system load snapshot program in 1998 with CellNet Data Systems Inc. After acquiring the assets of CellNet in mid-May, Schlumberger now operates Ameren UE’s network meter reading system. Through a feature in that system, Ameren is able to collect load measurements on all of its distribution system transformers during peak-load hours. Utilizing that functionality, the utility has programmed its meters to collect usage data during three consecutive one-hour time periods during the peak-load time of day. According to Konya, the utility contacts Schlumberger, and Schlumberger takes a snapshot of all the meters in the system, then passes a flat data file back to Ameren. The flat file contains usage data for each meter during each one-hour period, along with identification information for each meter. The utility is passed upward of 800,000 meter records, but by the time bad data is eliminated, Konya said that Ameren is analyzing load on about 100,000 transformers.

“After we’ve eliminated bad data, summed the data by transformer and by hour, then applied a conversion factor to convert kWh to kVA, we can compare the calculated transformer usage during each of those periods to the nameplate rating of the transformer,” Konya said. “We can then determine a percent nameplate load during each of those three one-hour periods.” Once that determination is made, Ameren UE is able to see whether individual transformers on the system are being over- or under-utilized. With its net investment in distribution transformers amounting to approximately $200 million, improper transformer utilization can mean a significant and unnecessary cost. The system load snapshot program helps Ameren UE avoid such losses, and the utility expects significant cost savings as the program continues.

Konya said that Ameren UE maintained a different transformer load management program prior to initiating the AMR-based system load snapshot program. However, the technology utilized for that previous effort had become outdated, and the program was providing less-than-accurate results. “We felt a greatly improved transformer load management program would allow us to accrue significant savings that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to tap into,” he said.

As the utility has become more comfortable with the information it receives from the system, more applications for the data have been identified. Ameren has made its individual transformer load data available online to field engineering personnel. “If we’re faced with a decision of whether or not to replace a transformer based on needing to add another customer to the transformer, we can look at the transformer’s loading online and determine, based on the current loading, if we can add another customer without exceeding the limits on the transformer,” Konya said.

Aside from assessing the system’s overall transformer utilization, Ameren also can use the AMR data to identify overloaded transformers and take action before customers experience a loss of power. “It’s pro-active outage management,” Konya said. The utility also uses its network meter reading system to detect and combat energy theft. According to Konya, that effort has been quite successful. He said that since a year ago, Ameren had reduced energy theft by about 60 percent as a result of network meter reading.

While Ameren UE initially justified its AMR implementation based on the more traditional approaches of easy, accurate meter reads, management did feel that they could use the AMR-derived data for these more operational purposes. As it happens, they were right.

“This is the sort of operational efficiency application we’re seeing for AMR,” said Schlumberger’s Booth. “During peak times, we go out and take a snapshot of the system. The customer then can take a look at all the transformers and what’s below them … and determine which transformers might be oversized or which might be undersized. When it comes time to buy new transformers, they can save themselves greatly with that information.”

AMR-based Outage Notification

Much as it was with the Ameren UE implementation, when Ada, Okla.-based People’s Electric Cooperative decided to deploy an AMR system from American Innovations, they initially did so for the more traditional reasons-the ability to read more meters, quicker and more accurately. But, also like Ameren, it didn’t take People’s long to realize that the AMR system held potential for greater operational applications.

Rich Smalling, president of American Innovations, said that People’s Electric had a notion early on that the AMR system could be used for improved outage notification. “People’s had some very clever people who wanted to feed outage information from our equipment into their outage mapping and outage response system,” he said. “When a customer called to report an outage, they (People’s) could use our AMR system to find out, down to the transformer level, what was causing the outage.”

People’s Electric serves approximately 17,000 customers, about 10,000 of whom are residential. According to John Hudson, manager of operations for People’s Electric Cooperative, 6,828 of the utility’s residential meters currently are equipped with American Innovation’s AIMetering AMR system. Two hundred of those are equipped with outage notification capabilities.

“We place those (the outage notification-equipped meters) in strategic places on the system in relation to certain switches on our lines,” Hudson said. “Then when those units call back into the AMR server, we hand off that information to an outage server.”

Once data from the AMR system has entered the outage response system, the data is used to populate a database, which in turn updates a system map. Through color coding, the mapping system can show graphically where the outage is in fairly accurate detail.

“We use all of that to provide a picture to our dispatchers so they can see what’s happening on the system during an outage situation,” Hudson said. “You can actually see where our customer population is and where the device controlling that population is. Then you can pinpoint the source of the outage.”

Once notification begins to come in from the AMR system, People’s combines that information with customer calls and publishes the outage information to its phone system. As customers continue to call in, they are met with a recording that lets them know whether or not there is a reported outage in their area. “A lot of times, that’s all the customer really wants to find out: They want to know if we know about the outage,” Hudson said.

Despite the relatively small number of customers in its service territory, People’s Electric covers a lot of ground. For that reason, Hudson said the AMR system’s outage notification capabilities are particularly attractive. “We’re spread out over 11 counties, and storms can hit you in different places,” he said. “With a system like this, you can begin to isolate outages a lot quicker, and your dispatcher can makes assignments accordingly.

“The initial call coming over the system is instantaneous,” he continued. “It tells us there’s an outage in a particular area before our customers even begin to call in.”

Letting Customers Access the Data

Utilities also are finding an application for AMR-derived customer usage data in the areas of load management and commercial and industrial (C&I) customer energy management. Much-publicized reliability issues in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast regions have made voluntary load curtailment programs almost a necessity to avoid rolling brownouts or blackouts. High electricity prices on the open market also have made load management a more attractive exercise in the eyes of utilities.

For load management and curtailment programs to work, large C&I customers need access to real-time usage information. Certain AMR vendors now are making it possible to publish usage information over the Internet so large C&I customers can have access to real-time or near-real-time load data. With that data available at their fingertips, and with innovative pricing options from utilities, C&I customers can strategically manage or shed load. Such strategy not only reduces the customer’s bill, it also lessens strain on an often-overburdened power grid and gives the utility the ability to sell excess energy on the open market.

Cannon Technologies is one of several industry vendors that markets an online usage information service geared toward a utility’s C&I customers. Through Readmeter.com, Cannon can publish customer usage data on a Web page that appears to reside on the utility’s Web site. By graphically displaying load curves, utilities can show C&I customers where they might benefit from voluntary load curtailment.

Doug Backer, Cannon Technologies marketing manager, says load information can be of real benefit to customers. “Through viewing the graph, the C&I customers start to see little spikes that are costing them demand charge money,” he said. “They then can investigate these spikes and try to curtail load.”

Schlumberger’s Booth also has seen that such voluntary load curtailment is attractive to customers-and to the utility that serves those customers. “If you can present the data to the customer and correlate that data back to a cost savings, you can ask that the customer keep their usage below a certain level and offer a costs savings program for that,” Booth said. “If the customer stays below that predetermined level, he reaps benefits. And the utility reaps the benefit of not having to buy that extra power out on the grid. Or they can sell the excess power they have.”

AMR Reaching its Potential

Innovative uses for AMR, like those in effect at Ameren UE and People’s Electric Cooperative, show a fuller potential for the technology beyond the ability to read out-of-the-way meters. As utilities begin to learn the true value of AMR and AMR-derived customer usage data, the AMR industry is showing signs of reaching the levels many had anticipated years ago. Leaders in the industry are starting to see an attitude change among utility customers.

“I’ve been involved in the industry for about five-and-a-half years, and I’ve definitely seen a change in that time,” Smalling said. “When we first came in, we were spending a lot of time explaining (to potential customers) what AMR was. We were doing a lot of educating. Now, our customers understand the basics of AMR and what it does. Now, we’re showing them what value there is beyond the read.”

Carolyn Kinsman, AMR consultant and president of Automation Communications Links, said that utilities historically have had problems justifying AMR’s cost. But the more innovative operational applications like those mentioned above could be the catalyst that makes cost-justification easier.

“The only way utilities are going to be able to justify that cost is when they get their heads around the value of the data … in the types of dollars and cents they truly understand,” Kinsman said. “Operational savings and reliability are two things utilities can understand and that upper management can deal with.”

Outage management, load management and distribution system optimization might not be the most immediately visible applications for AMR technology, but those are likely the areas of functionality that will drive the market in the future. Where metering data might at one time have been of little value outside the billing and customer service departments, utilities such as Ameren UE and People’s Electric Cooperative have shown that AMR has worth throughout the enterprise. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the utility industry catches on.

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