Emerging Communication Technologies

The power of meter data unification and synchronization of advanced metering infrastructure, Part II

In Part I of this series, published in the Nov. Dec. 2007 issue of Electric Light & Power, we discussed the ways today’s utilities are increasingly using improved communications technology and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to balance electrical supply and demand while being environmentally aware and responsible. (Visit www.elp to view the archived issue.) Utilities have begun to lay much of the groundwork either because they recognize that there is tremendous benefit to grid stabilization and meeting energy demand through curtailment programs or because they are responding to regulatory requirements in “greening” their assets. The true innovation enabling the next frontier in responsible energy consumption, however, is the implementation of technologies that put the customer at the center of the decision for participating in available programs.

The mass market—namely, consumers—is the sole remaining untapped arena where the ability to control the load still exists. Studies have shown that when these customers have the technology to keep themselves informed, they will actively reduce consumption to lower their bills. They have also shown interest in contributing to the global initiative that will help to reduce the “greenhouse effect.” This article explores the ways in which utilities are using today’s technologies to empower customers to both save money and help the environment through reduction of CO2 and demand. In doing so, a whole host of technologies come into play.


Imagine a world where you wake on a hot summer morning and receive an e-mail on your PDA or an automated text message on your phone from your utility informing you of a special weather-related opportunity to participate in a “green energy” program that benefits the environment and could save you money. You decide to log onto www.MyUtility.comMyHome. You take a look at your consumption pattern during a similar peak period in the last few years and realize that you would like to take advantage of this special offer. You click on the large “Accept” button and”voila! You have just participated in the initiative to reduce greenhouse gases and you have taken a step toward lowering your energy costs. How does this happen?

A sample view of a consumer’s energy profile.
Click here to enlarge image

To enable consumers, utilities leverage the basic AMI infrastructure and systems that measure, collect and transport energy usage and other field data from advanced devices such as water, gas and electric smart meters and communicate the relevant data to the customer, either on request or on a pre-defined schedule. The AMI infrastructure is a component of the intelligent grid and is the enabler for consumers to assist in the reduction of localized peak capacity that will have a direct and measurable impact on global warming.

Here is a checklist of components that participate in a complete AMI solution:

  • Smart Meter – The Smart Meter is a field device that measures and collects energy consumption (the cash register for a utility) and other events at a premise. In the mass market, that’s the residence. It also is the gateway between the HAN (Home Area Network) and LAN, (Local Area Network) of the AMI system, which is part of the communication path for the utility to send and receive data between the fields and the back office.
  • Home Area Network (HAN) – The HAN is an in-home network that connects devices such as smart appliances, lighting, home heating and cooling systems, security systems and others into one network to be controlled through a “smart display” or the Internet. This enables local load control, either voluntarily by the customer or by the host utility. Technologies in play for the HAN might include advanced automation techniques that apply Internet protocol addresses to home devices, enabling device management via the Internet and Web 2.0 browser user interfaces and widgets.
  • Local Area Network (LAN) – The LAN is one leg of the journey in an AMI solution; it is the area in which the AMI solution transports smart meter data to field concentrators. The field concentrator is the field device that collects the data from several smart meters or devices and leverages radio frequency (RF), power lines (PLC), broadband or other communication technology to transport the data from the meters to the concentrators.
  • Wide Area Network (WAN) – The WAN component of the AMI solution could use the same technology as the LAN but could also leverage existing communication infrastructure at the utility such as fiber, Internet, etc., to backhaul the data to an AMI head-end system. The head-end is the command center for the AMI solution and manages the communication network implementing the required or desired meter reading schedules and enacting other meter and communication-related commands.
  • Meter Data Unification and Synchronization System (MDUS) – The MDUS, at a high level, is the central repository for all the AMI field data such as meter data, events, etc., from all of the various concentrators and head-end systems that participate in the AMI communication network. The MDUS synchronizes with the commercial systems and is a message broker between the front/back offices and the field, for instance, when messages are generated from the call center to perform on-demand reads.
  • Back and front office applications – Benefits of AMI enablement depend a great deal on the level of integration between the MDUS and the business systems or applications. Important dependent enterprise applications will include the Customer Information System (CIS), also referred to as Customer Relationship and Billing (CR&B) systems, Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) Systems, Demand Management Systems (DMS) and potentially, Outage Management Systems (OMS). Truly integrated, end-to-end enterprise offerings—”meter to cash” from the utility perspective or “meter to decision to participate in a demand curtailment program” from the customer perspective—will have the advantage in this field.

Or the alternative”..

From the utility perspective, implementing even a few of these technologies will constitute a major project and could keep utility resources and associated vendors occupied for several years. But today’s savvy utility executives understand the alternative: to site, select, build and operate a new fossil-based power plant, which would involve having to navigate a potentially volatile fuels market, track emissions and satisfy North American Electric Reliability Corporation requirements, among many other costs. Therefore, utilities are increasingly taking the more forward-thinking approach and initiating implementation of these exciting future applications.

Utilities must keep in mind that the most expensive portion of an AMI project lies with meter procurement and deployment. Utilities that are just embarking on this path should seek to take advantage of the competitive market environment for meter and integration service providers.

While efficiencies in meter selection are certainly possible, utilities should not make sacrifices in the area of front- or back-office integration. The success of future progressive utility programs will directly correspond to the strength of integration and the degree to which the utility can begin with the end in mind. The utility should seek to provide a robust AMI infrastructure, based on open and standard protocols, that scales to the meter data challenge; offer the right programs at the right time to the mass market; and plan for effective, efficient front- and back-office business processes, such as on-demand billing and payment options, meter disconnection/reconnection and area outage detection and restoration.

Finally, while the typical mass-market customer could remain blissfully unaware of the technology backbone required to provide his energy curtailment choices, that same customer may greatly value the chance to “think globally, but act locally” while reducing his energy bills. (Visit www.elp.com for more articles on AMI.)


Kevin Walsh is a utilities industry principal for SAP America Inc.

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