By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer
Some of the bigger advanced metering projects moving forward today reflect a growing trend. Increasingly, utilities are issuing requests for proposals on two important systems simultaneously: advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and meter data management (MDM) systems.
Already, a number of managers at large utilities have put MDM as the horse before AMI’s cartload of data. In recent months, Southern California Edison and Detroit Edison both have issued RFPs for AMI and MDM concurrently. JEA, the municipal electric utility in Jacksonville, Fla., began MDM development efforts two years before the utility’s AMI was scheduled to be fully installed at the end of 2006.
Making Information Powerful
Why are utilities gearing up for AMI with meter data management systems? For one thing, advanced metering delivers frequent interval data, which greatly increases the amount of information a utility will have about consumption.
Consider this: When a utility adds metering that can capture reads every hour-a commonly used interval-the number of readings for each household jumps from one every 30 days to 720 in the same period of time. If utility managers are looking at readings every 15 minutes, suddenly they have 2,880 data points to draw from every 30 days.
Not surprisingly, utilities that implement AMI plan to use the data in many applications. Kris Beck, chief operating officer at WACS LLC, an MDM provider, can rattle off a bunch of them. “Demand forecasting, billing accuracy, theft reduction and leak detection for water or gas” are a few uses of AMI data she cites. “Utilities want to enable new pricing schemes to manage customer consumption in peak-demand periods,” she said. “They want to improve capital investment planning-where they’ll put assets, how big transformers need to be.”
Interval data also benefits outage management, power quality monitoring and other operational processes within a utility. Meanwhile, for customers, there may be online presentation of day-after consumption data and online energy usage analysis, as well as other conservation-oriented tools.
Of course, using the data in such applications requires integration, which may not have four letters, but it’s a dirty word to many IT professionals. In 2004, an Information Week survey found that some 30 percent of companies using enterprise resource planning (ERP) weren’t buying any new applications because they had their hands full integrating the ones they already had in-house.
Industry players will tell you that MDM serves as the broker between devices in the field-i.e., meters-and applications that can use data from those devices, such as a customer information system or an outage management system. Ideally, the MDM system makes access to meter data a simple matter.
Jovita Williams is project manager for the AMI system going in at Dallas-based TXU Energy Delivery. She has an interesting read on how MDM should affect end users of applications: “If your MDM system is good, no one notices you have it there.”
Consolidate and Conquer
Here’s another reason MDM systems are gaining popularity: Hybrid AMI systems that incorporate several meter reading technologies are becoming more common.
Hybrid AMI systems that incorporate several meter reading technologies and multi-commodity AMI systems like the one installed at Unitil make MDM systems almost essential.
For instance, Pacific Gas and Electric is using radio frequency technology to read gas meters and a power line communications system for electric meters. TXU is planning to have some meters read using a broadband over power line system, some read using power line communications and, for a while, some will still be read manually.
Ultimately, data from all 3 million of TXU’s meters will go through the MDM system, Williams says. Naturally, all this data also goes into the billing system, something Williams calls a “home-grown monster” at her utility.
Therein lies another reason many utilities are pairing AMI deployments with MDM. When utilities change or upgrade utility systems, the MDM system can act as a buffer, thereby reducing integration headaches.
Besides, as WACS’ Beck explained, many utilities traditionally have master records for meter data in CIS or billing systems, but when multiple departments and users are accessing the data, such an arrangement has its drawbacks.
A billing system or CIS may only be configured to handle getting data once a month, she notes. Or, it may only store monthly totals. “If you want interval data for outage management or load forecasting or asset sizing, you need to put those data in a place where they can be managed and manipulated. The billing system is not necessarily the place to do that.”
Warehousing, query and reporting capabilities are a few MDM capabilities that Beck considers basics.
MDM Shopping? Plenty of Factors to Weigh
After learning about MDM systems from top vendors in February, the IT team at San Antonio’s CPS Energy knew their 2007 priorities would change. “This is an enterprise-type implementation,” said Anthony Hawkins, senior project manager for the utility. Done right, an MDM system will feed consumption data to many systems and applications throughout a utility.
That’s why Hawkins gathered a cross-functional team to explore what various systems have to offer and, later, to write a request for proposals from MDM vendors. Implementing an MDM system will be step one in this utility’s advanced metering deployment. For now, the team has many system features to examine and judge.
There are a number of basics that every MDM system should offer. A data repository is one, according to industry players such as Chris King, chief strategy officer at eMeter, and Glenn MacRill, vice president of sales and service at LODESTAR.
Data validation, editing and estimating also are key capabilities, according to the MDM developers. Called VEE, these functions ensure data get consolidated, cleansed and, when necessary, edited manually. As for estimation, that’s the system’s ability to fill in gaps when readings don’t come every time they should.
Beyond these basics, however, there are a number of factors to assess. For instance, Hawkins hopes his MDM system will help CPS managers manage the metering deployment itself.
The “CPS” in CPS Energy stands for “city public service.” CPS is the nation’s largest municipally owned provider of both gas and electricity. With 656,000 electric customers and 313,000 buying natural gas, CPS will have nearly a million devices to install during the AMI deployment. No wonder Hawkins says he has eyeballed MDM as an inventory-tracking tool to use when putting all that new equipment in the field. He points to eMeter as an MDM developer known for being “good on asset management.”
Nexus Energy Software, on the other hand, is an MDM developer Hawkins admires for being “strong on the software applications to support distribution engineers.” Also, he thinks Nexus provides “customer-friendly web interfaces” that would facilitate a consumer portal. And, since CPS managers are interested in applications that will help in distribution-system planning, he’s intrigued to see such functionality available as add-on modules.
Integration is another concern for Hawkins and the CPS team. Hawkins noted that Itron, having just announced a new partnership with SAP, could offer integration know-how in linking up to the utility’s CIS, an SAP product.
“Meter data management systems, from an enterprise perspective, are designed so that they feed data to other, downstream systems,” LODESTAR’s MacRill explained. Hence, ease of integration and “open architecture is something people look for.”
Other considerations include:
- Vendor neutrality and independence: “Since the MDM must integrate with different AMI systems, it might be a challenge to link elements created by competing companies,” King said. MacRill added: “With the proliferation of meter-reading technologies and mergers or acquisitions in the utility space, a lot of utilities now have a variety of meter-data collection technologies in place. The ability to integrate easily with a lot of data collection devices and technologies is a key feature.”
- Business-process management: According to King, an MDM is one place to automate various business processes that are driven by meter data. For instance, “when you get an exception report from the MDM, you need an application that handles the exception in some way, such as sending a dispatch notice to the work-management system so a field service tech can check out the problem.” Not all MDM software has such capabilities.
- System scalability: King also noted that the MDM must be able to handle escalating numbers of advanced metering units, increased data storage capacity and additional applications. “The point is to be able to handle hourly data for mllions of meters, as well as multiple and changing applications,” he said.
- Aggregation capabilities: For utilities planning to offer time-of-use rates, the MDM should be able to identify when consumption occurs and aggregate that usage according to the rate in effect at the time. Aggregation applies to utility systems beyond billing, too. “You could aggregate all the meter reads up to a substation or transformer level, and send that aggregate to distribution planning,” MacRill said. “An MDM needs very flexible aggregation hierarchies.”
With all the MDM features and options available, the CPS Energy team still is mulling over its wish list and RFP details. Nonetheless, utility managers hope to issue an RFP in May, make a buying decision this summer, and get a bare-bones MDM system installed by year-end.
Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.