AMI: Define It Before You Go Shopping

by John M. Powers, contributing editor

Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker wrote about communicating with his teenage son, Luke. Instead of talking to his dad directly as teenagers are loath to do, Luke started to instant message, or IM, Gopnik when he got home from school.

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Gopnik wrote that he enjoyed learning the IM language, such as BRB for “be right back” and GTG for “got to go.” Gopnik said his favorite IM acronym was LOL, which he said obviously meant “lots of love.” He was overjoyed to share that intimacy with his son. For some time, he had been spreading LOLs to everyone, such as his father who’d had a heart attack. He had been sending him e-mails expressing concern and closing with LOL. Eventually Gopnik found out that LOL means “laughing out loud.”

Speaking the same language helps no matter what the subject, but people use many words and acronyms that don’t mean the same thing to listeners and speakers. AMI, meaning “advanced metering infrastructure,” is one of those acronyms. Sure, we can all recognize technologies and ideas as constituent parts of AMI, but can AMI mean different things to different utilities or in different parts of the nation?

To start, let’s look at the term. On my bookshelf, I have a few technical utility industry guides. Two don’t define AMI; my power industry dictionary doesn’t list it; and one book has an AMI listing for “automatic motion inhibit,” whatever that means.

Aside from needing new technical guides, if I were working at a utility and deciding on an AMI system, I’d be in trouble.

Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) serves more than 150,000 customers across Vermont and seeks an AMI solution. It’s collaborated with the state’s Department of Public Service (DPS) and others to come up with “templates and standards for new meter and communications technology.” The team must decide what AMI means for Vermont.

Joe Kraus, CVPS senior vice president of operations, engineering and customer service, said that the collaborative met about three things:

1. Functionality: What is the basic functionality wanted from an AMI system?
2. Sequencing: What is the rollout schedule for the AMI functionalities since they can’t roll out simultaneously? For example, what should come first: the billing cycle, outage-management functions or making usage data available to customers online?
3. Cost recovery: How will the collaborative pay for this?

Kraus said that the goal of the discussions is to come up with “a generic memorandum of understanding addressing those issues for all of Vermont and a more specific one regarding (CVPS’s) specific plan to implement AMI and the smart grid in the near term.”

CVPS’s chief partner in the collaboration is the Vermont DPS, which functions as an advocate for the public in front of the state utility commission. David O’Brien is its commissioner.

“It’s one of those things where the technology and the platforms exist, and it’s really a question of policy at the state level in terms of how far you want to go with this sort of program,” O’Brien said. “There’s degrees of implementation of this sort of technology ” and how you structure it and (which) platform you choose.”

Utilities and government are not the only ones involved in the collaboration. A regional environmental organization called the Conservation Law Foundation–its Vermont Advocacy Center, specifically–has joined the collaboration. Sandra Levine, a senior attorney with the foundation, explained its interest in the discussions.

“This actually builds on some work that the Conservation Law Foundation has been supporting and encouraging for a number of years,” Levine said.

During the 1980s and ’90s, the foundation examined how energy efficiency could meet power needs better and in lieu of new generation, she said. Much of that work looked at rate structures and the technology needed to encourage and advance more efficient use of electricity. As part of various rate design proceedings at the time, the foundation encouraged time-based rates and advanced metering to achieve those efficiency goals. The foundation’s involvement grew from that work, Levine said.

CVPS pointed out when it announced the collaboration that terms such as smart grid and AMI are common in the power industry, but there’s no consensus on their definitions.

“This is still something that’s becoming understood by people,” O’Brien said. “Like any new technology, there’s a degree of understanding (and) concentric circles of understanding. People have certain ideas about what a smart grid encapsulates, and there’s degrees of how far you can go with this technology.”

A smart grid or AMI installation for one utility might be a basic improvement on the system the utility already has, and for another utility, AMI might mean taking advantage of everything that sort of system could make available to it, O’Brien said.

Technology is evolving, Kraus said.

“It’s the thing everyone is talking about; it’s the thing everyone’s most excited about,” he said. “So, everybody is looking at it and making various claims. So, I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a true, generic definition of ” what a smart grid does. It’s really an array of things.”

While there’s no consensus on an AMI definition, things such as the two-way communication between a meter and a utility or outage management systems are commonly accepted parts of AMI. That’s where the need for these discussions comes into play for CVPS and DPS. AMI means something different to Vermont than it does to other states, O’Brien said.

“I think this is one of those things that you need to apply your own sort of thinking and values to the technology options that are available and implement a system that works for you, so I think that’s what Vermont is doing,” he said.

Sandra Levine doesn’t know if it means something different for Vermont than for southern California, she said.

“But I think we need to make sure that how we implement a smart grid in Vermont makes sense for Vermont, which has a very different energy-use picture than California,” Levine said.

There’s another important facet for CVPS’s having the discussions in Vermont, Kraus said. Moving ahead with a big AMI project at this time involves some risk, much like when someone buys a computer, he said. Will the top-of-the-line computer today be a dinosaur technology tomorrow? He said, however, it is a good time to move on AMI.

“This is now an opportune time, particularly with all the California utilities embarking on AMI (and) finalizing their functionality requirement (and) pricing,” Kraus said. “I think what happens in California in the next year will have a dramatic impact on the rest of the states.”

Learning what makes sense regarding AMI in Vermont is a good idea from a planning standpoint, but there’s another reason things need to be hammered out before anyone goes shopping, Kraus said.

“The total project is about ” $70 million over 20 years, which is a large sum of money for a company our size,” he said. “This is a sort of a bet-the-farm investment ” because it’s so big, and you really want to make certain that five years from now regulators don’t say, “ËœWhy did you choose that technology? Why didn’t you anticipate this?’ That’s the reason we’re working with our regulators. We want to be able to jointly say, “ËœThis is what we’re doing and we know that there’s some risk of technological obsolescence, but we still think now is the time to proceed.'”

This way, another set of regulators will find it hard to disallow costs, Kraus said.

Once they’re armed with what Vermont needs regarding AMI, decisions must be made, and they’ve got a timeline. CVPS hopes to have a meter data management system installed by next year, Kraus said. With that foundation, CVPS plans to have an AMI system fully installed by 2012. From there, they’ll start building their smart grid.

Though the collaboration CVPS and DPS have embarked on is focused on Vermont and specifically what CVPS needs in its service territory, utilities across the nation will watch just as all eyes have been on California’s AMI implementations.

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