Metering and the Smart Grid: A View from the Front Line of Connectivity

By Michael Cale, Utility Partners of America

For utility executives planning massive smart grid implementations, the actual meter exchange may be viewed as one of the simplest processes in the overall project execution. After all, before the first smart meter is even installed, the entire transmission and distribution infrastructure must be rethought and retooled. The view from the end of the line, however, proves otherwise.

At the critical point where the smart grid connects to the actual consumer, the meter installation process matters a lot. Not only can it be the difference between a satisfied customer and a public relations nightmare, it also represents an opportunity to squeeze every possible efficiency from the deployment plan to increase return on investment (ROI) and overall rollout success. 

Vendors, Vendors Everywhere 

To understand the impact on the entire program, the utility must define its constituents. As an installation contractor, Utility Partners of America (UPA) navigates complex contractual relationships and service agreements. It may work directly for a utility, or more frequently, subcontract for a device manufacturer. In some engagements, UPA acts as prime. It is critical that the entire project team is brought into the pre-deployment planning process and careful consideration is given to the entire project. A detailed project plan involving all vendors is critical to the project’s success.

It is typical for multiple outsourced vendors to be engaged in a project. These vendors include integrators, wireless technology providers, network hardware manufacturers, data center service providers, meter and meter technology providers and public relations consultants. In such a crowded field, poor communications or missed deadlines can magnify as they ripple through the system. Careful planning and accountability metrics are essential to managing the intensity of a project once it goes live. 

All’s Well that Starts Well 

Several areas can make or break a successful meter rollout. First and foremost is customer communications. A clear message defining the project’s purpose and the positive impact it will have on customers will help eliminate customer concerns.

Logistics, the detailed task of assigning routes, technicians and schedules to production, also is an essential element. Installation vendors must come to the table with advanced technology solutions to that meet requirements, as well as experienced data management teams to drive workflows, efficiently dispatch work orders and make available extensive stakeholder communications related to project results and milestones.

Even with the best planning, adjustments to the project plan are inevitable. A myriad of reasons, from discoveries made in the field and weather-related issues to customer service issues that must be managed, can spur adjustments.

The key to success is effective project management that can react and adjust to situations as they occur.

Strong asset management processes result in more accurate reporting and forecasting. Those data are delivered daily—along with productivity reports, quality audit reports, customer concerns and claims—providing complete visibility into project status. Vendors and utility executives can jump on a gap before it becomes a problem.

For example, discovery of previously unknown meter types in the field can create installation delays. These types of problems create scattered work, route saturation and closure issues. If they are not resolved quickly enough, route acceptance can be negatively affected, greatly impacting ROI for all involved parties. 

Time Really is Money 

When it comes to meter installation, speed counts. On average, it takes a trained technician 8 to 10 minutes to safely and accurately exchange an existing electric meter with a brand new smart meter. That includes recording the meter’s GPS position, documenting the final meter reading on the old unit and installing the new unit. Installers are equipped with state-of-the-art handheld mobile units to accomplish these tasks. Over the course of a 100,000-meter installation, an extra minute per changeout adds up to more than 200 work days.

Untold hazards and delays, however, often are waiting for the meter installer. For this reason, technicians must be trained to handle any number of possible problems, from the innocuous (curious questions posed by residents) to the all-too-common (locked gates and irate dogs), from the unusual (bee hive in vicinity) to the safety concerns surrounding the installation itself. Speed matters, but safety and accuracy come first.

Managing customer reactions before, during and after a smart grid rollout remains a top challenge for utility executives. In a 2010 Oracle survey of utility executives, consumer reactions to changing rate structures topped a list of implementation challenges. Any number of perceived consumer concerns—from radio-frequency exposure to local workforce layoffs—can create the potential for a public relations nightmare.

Time and again, UPA has seen the smoothest installation rollouts err on the side of over-communication with customers. A coordinated and proactive stakeholder campaign involves a multi-channel public relations strategy, including town hall meetings, door hangers, websites, advertising and social networking. Even car magnets and nametags that explicitly identify a technician as a subcontractor to the utility add consistency and reduce confusion. 

First Line of Defense 

Too often, the actual utility and contractor employees are overlooked in the communication program. For example, in a recent Purdue University honors thesis “Smart Grid Technology and Consumer Call Center Readiness,” student and author Kelsey Chambers asked utility call center employees six smart meter questions, including “Do your customers have smart meters?” and “Do you have information available about the smart grid?”

Although all companies surveyed had smart grid initiatives in place, only one-third answered these types of questions adequately. Clearly, call center employees are prime candidates for further smart grid education.

Using call center and installation technicians as a public relations tools cannot be overstated. The catalogue of customer questions and complaints is varied and extensive. It ranges from reports of workers stepping on a prized plant to concerns around radio frequency (RF) exposure to perceived electric bill increases after meter installation. Each issue must be taken seriously and handled professionally.

Training both field representatives and call center employees on customer service techniques helps minimize the “noise” that provides unnecessary distraction and potentially can derail a project. Utilities must communicate with customers early, honestly and often. This is key to success.

For larger installation projects, a pilot program provides an opportunity to validate assumptions and fine-tune logistics on a smaller scale. It also provides baseline metrics for key productivity and customer response levels. Discoveries frequently emerge during a pilot. These represent opportunities to adjust communication plans and deployment schedules and to take corrective inventory action before mass installation begins.

Michael Cale is CEO of Utility Partners of America 

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