Automatic Meter Reading Offers Expanded Services

Automatic Meter Reading Offers Expanded Services

By Steven Wood, Associate Editor

Even though automatic meter reading (AMR) technology has been around for numerous years, it is slowly being tested and installed throughout the United States. Utilities have been slow to implement the technology based on several reasonable concerns: technology is still changing, deregulation is unstable and costs are still high.

Many utilities have conducted pilots to prove the current technology, but to be honest; the technology has been proven time and time again. Deregulation is also causing concern over who will own the meters. Besides the technological aspects of AMR, utilities have been concerned with recovering the costs of implementing an AMR system and realizing the benefits to the utility and the consumer.

Many utilities make the mistake of automatically authorizing an AMR pilot simply to test the technology. According to Ralph Abbot, Plexus research president, as reported in the AIMessenger, since most of the technology is already proven, wouldn`t it be more beneficial to the utility to visit users of the systems already in place? This would eliminate unnecessary expense and allow the implementation of an AMR system to occur faster.

So the question is not whether the technology is proven, but what type of technology would work best with a particular utility`s situation and which one would be the most cost effective? Currently, there are several different technologies being used successfully.

One major driving force behind implementing AMR is deregulation and the possibility of needing to read meters more than once a month. If a utility is going to read meters on a monthly basis, it is still more economical to manually read them. If a utility has to read a meter more than once a month, the scenario dramatically changes. For example, hourly metering produces an incredible increase in the amount of metering data that must be processed. Instead of one reading per month, a utility has to make 720 readings per month at just one location!

There is also the debate of whether an AMR system in an urban area should be open to competition. In other words, should one company supply the metering services or should it be an open competitive market. California has chosen to have an open market. Even though it can be argued that it is more cost effective to take a monopolistic approach to metering services, others contend there will be more product offerings and lower prices to the consumers with the open market.

Suppliers are responding to the need for automated meters. More than 30 companies provide advanced metering products or AMR systems capable of supporting hourly metering. The utility industry is slow to respond to the advanced technology though because of uncertainties about meter ownership, maintenance, calibration and data management. Until these uncertainties are cleared up, there will be an unwillingness to invest in AMR technology.

Even though utilities have been slow to respond, there are several AMR success stories in high-density service areas, remote areas and hard-to-read situations. Currently, four companies are supplying large-scale AMR systems for nine utilities. Within three years, over six million automated meters will be in use. This though, represents an extremely small percentage of the more than 100,000,000 electric meters in service.

Meter Technology

The electromechanical (rotating disc) meter is currently the standard in residential metering. The design dates back to the early 1900s and years of refinement have made the meter an extremely reliable instrument at an exceptional cost. For a mere $25, the electromechanical meter will last more than 20 years and provide industry acceptable accuracy. The lack of any communications capabilities though is a major drawback of the current standard.

AMR technology has added the ability to communicate with the meter and the consumer. By adding a processing and communications module to the spinning-disk measurement device, companies have modularized the meter. CellNet`s communications module (Photo 1) for example, is retrofitted into an electromechanical single phase meter. With the addition of solid-state metering technologies, the options are expanded to allow interaction that is not available with current meters.

Even though cost is a major concern with these advanced meters, utilities are seeing substantial reductions in the standard cost. Prices have dropped from more than $100 to around $75 per meter and lower, depending on volume. Meters also are including more of the electronic modules as built-ins from the factory. In the last year or so, more than a third of new meters sold included some kind of electronic module, typically AMR communications modules. The new electronic meters are priced to compete with the electromechanical meters with built-in electronic communication modules.

Four firms supplying more than 99 percent of residential and small commercial electric meters have dominated the U.S. electric industry. ABB Power T&D, General Electric Co., Landis & Gyr and Schlumberger Industries have all been the main suppliers to utilities. Even though these firms have attempted various AMR technologies over the years, they have had limited commercial success. Firms that have been successful though have been non-meter manufacturers. They do, however, work closely with the manufacturers. The partnerships that have developed allow utilities to purchase meters with factory-installed AMR modules. These partnerships have resulted in more than 30 companies offering AMR systems.

An example of this is CellNet Data Systems. CellNet has installed more than 850,000 meter communication modules in the meters of customers for Kansas City Power & Light, Union Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric, Northern States Power and other utilities. This approach to network meter reading has led to more than 6 million meters being deployed in 11 states. CellNet has addressed the issue of ownership by allowing the utility to keep ownership of the meter, and CellNet retains ownership of the meter communication module installed within the meter. This approach has led to a cost of $2 to $4 per meter per month.

Radio Frequency

Low power unlicensed communications in the 902 MHz to 928 MHz bandwidth has been authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Several companies offer radio-based AMR systems, including Itron, CellNet, Schlumberger, Whisper Communications and Williams Telemetry. FCC rules require the use of “spread spectrum” technology in this frequency range to minimize interference among coexisting systems.

In a fixed network, meter data collected is transmitted to a neighborhood communication controller. In the case of Itron, this is called a Cell Control Unit (CCU). Itron`s CCUs are installed on utility poles, streetlights (Photo 2), buildings or other locations.

These systems usually can offer a variety of reading options, including interval readings that are important in the deregulated market. Also important to utilities and cost justification is that these systems can also offer outage detection and service disconnect and connect. By decreasing the number of personnel callouts, utilities can decrease the cost of servicing customers. Radio-based systems tend to be more cost-effective for selected meters within a clustered geographic area. As with any product, the capabilities of the AMR systems vary with each company.

An example of a fixed network within densely populated areas is the agreement between Itron and Virginia Power. Itron recently announced that it has installed approximately 131,500 AMR meters for Virginia Power in the Springfield, Alexandria and Richmond areas. Eventually, this fixed network will serve 450,000 customers in the most heavily populated areas of Richmond, Northern Virginia and Norfolk.

Another exciting offering is two-way metering using narrow band PCS. This system uses the public paging network on the radio spectrum auctioned recently by the FCC. This system supports two-way metering without additional dedicated infrastructure. Several companies are exploring narrow band PCS technology. Enron, ABB and Motorola recently announcing the joint development of remote metering using paging. Williams Telemetry is another company developing paging-based systems.

Power Line Carrier

In the 1970s and 1980s, power line communications was seen as the most promising technology. For example, competent systems using power line technology are currently available from Cannon Technologies, DCSI, Hunt Technologies and others. These systems are reliable and adequate for most utility needs. An additional benefit to power line communications is that it is controlled by the utility. Most of the systems are two-way, permitting addressable data such as price or load control signals to be sent to the customer.

When high frequency is used in power line AMR, most of the services offered by radio-based systems are also available. However, if the AMR system uses low frequency, offerings are severely limited. Typically, low frequency AMR systems are limited to one-way communication. Power line carrier based systems tend to be more cost-effective for selected meters that are served by a given substation.

For example, Cannon Technologies Inc. has a small power line AMR system installed in Philadelphia for PECO Energy. They have more than 45,000 single-phase, two-way residential automatic meters in the field. Concentrated primarily within the Philadelphia city limits, PECO is an example of a utility using power line carrier AMR in a densely populated urban area.

Telephone

Telephone technology has been the choice for profile recording and large customer billing for many years. Its popularity has been due to the fact that it imposes no dedicated infrastructure requirement, since the telephone infrastructure is already in place. Even though telephone technology costs have been a deterrent for residential metering, it tends to be more cost-effective for selected meters spread out across the service territory. Telephone-based systems can offer several advantages, including data rates up to 56 Kbps and two-way communications. Low cost, residential metering devices are now offered by many companies including DCI, eT Communications, NERTEC Designs, International Teldata Inc. and Telemonitoring Manufacturing Corp.

Low Earth Orbiting Satellite (LEO)

LEO is creating an increasing amount of interest since it offers a substantial amount of services to remote areas that are hard to read. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Cooperative Research Network has funded a research initiative to look into the feasibility of satellite technology. The results of its research should be available by yearend.

Those that endorse satellite AMR technology believe that this low-cost communication option will be available in about a year and a half. A satellite-based system is a promising option for those meters in remote areas. Currently, for $5 to $15 per meter reading, satellites are being used to read meters at these remote areas. Advocates of LEO predict that the price will decrease as technology is put into use.

Value-added Services

Even though AMR currently would not be economically feasible in a traditional setting of reading a meter once a month, providing value-added services with the meter could open the door to quicker deployment of AMR technology. Value-added services would have to be researched with consumers to apprehend what services consumers value and especially which ones would influence their decision to switch to AMR and the provider company. Some potential value-added services include:

Home and business security systems

Appliance service and warranty programs

High speed communication networks

Digital telephone and personal communications services

Internet, cable and satellite TV

Home automation

Energy management systems

Outage notification

Power quality reporting

Conclusion

AMR technology is rapidly expanding, with new systems and product offerings being announced frequently. The technology is proven, it`s just a matter of time before the cost can be justified. Which technology will prove to be the best is still to be determined. All the technologies have their pros and cons, and a few have already made great strides to penetrate the market.

It is projected that if utilities are required to provide frequent meter reads the demand for AMR technology will be astronomical. Even though this might be two or three years away, those companies positioned for the demand will profit greatly. Those not ready to respond to the market will be left behind.

Even if frequent meter reads are not required, and utilities use load profiling or other means, there will still be a demand for AMR to provide value-added services and reduce labor costs. All indications are that prices for AMR products will continue to drop and the additional benefits that consumers and energy providers will see with one- and two-way AMR communications systems in a deregulated market will justify the additional cost of these meters.

If you would like to see more articles on this topic, circle R.S. 101.

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CellNet`s communications module (lower semi-circle) is retrofitted into an electromechanical single phase meter to provide communications capabilities to electric meters.

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Itron`s Cell Control Unit functions as a radio receiver and transmitter, and also performs memory and computational functions.

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