By Paul Shaeffer
South Central Power (SCP) is like a lot of other power companies, but in some ways, the Ohio-based rural electric cooperative is very different. Nowhere is this more obvious than in how SCP is tackling its meter reading function. The utility has embraced automatic meter reading (AMR) technology and hasn’t been afraid to change direction as necessary during its AMR deployment.
SCP has a long tradition of providing customers with safe, reliable and economical power. With its origins in the rural electrification efforts of the 1930s, SCP is the largest rural electric cooperative in Ohio and the 12th largest in the United States. SCP serves 100,000 consumers throughout central and southern Ohio from five district offices, including its headquarters in Lancaster, Ohio.
James Graf, meter technician at South Central Power, installs an AMR unit at a residential site as a part of the utility’s multi-year program. The completed program will result in total residential AMR coverage.
Like most utility staffs, SCP’s staff has seen the myriad changes that have occurred in the electric utility industry in recent years. Two of these changes have created an opportunity that SCP is exploiting to improve the competitive position of its organization: rapidly evolving technology and an increased awareness and need for improved customer service. These two changes have come together for SCP and have driven a re-engineering of the utility’s meter reading business processes. The result has been a significant improvement in customer service, billing processes and financial performance for the utility.
Up until its current foray into AMR, SCP’s meter reading and subsequent billing and customer service operations were manually driven. It was a very personal method of operation, but also slow, costly and occasionally inaccurate. SCP clearly needed to improve on all these fronts if the co-op was to be a competitive player in today’s uncertain market for delivering electricity.
This re-engineering process began with what initially looked like a long-term problem that is endemic throughout the utility industry. SCP’s staff of meter readers was aging, but the utility needed to be able to continue to retrieve meter data on a more frequent basis for revenue generation and customer service purposes. SCP turned that problem into an opportunity. Rather than rehire and retrain new staff, SCP decided simply not to fill these meter reader positions as they became open. Instead, the utility launched into an AMR pilot program.
Initially, SCP selected a phone-based AMR system, as the utility was looking for a system that also could provide some outage management capabilities. SCP deployed this early system to about 4,000 residential customers.
Results with the phone-based system were mixed. SCP was able to receive its billing data once per month, and it also received incoming calls during outages. The system did have some limitations, though. SCP was limited to one read per month, and since the utility did not own the infrastructure, it was subject to another entity-the telephone company-determining the priority of SCP’s maintenance needs. The desire for improved outage notification was realized, but the volume of incoming calls often resulted in the collapse of the utility’s phone system.
These limits led SCP to seek an alternative system that would not cause the utility to walk away from the investment it had already made in its phone-based system. The search led to a power line carrier (PLC)-based solution, known as the “Turtle” system, from Pequot Lakes, Minn.-based Hunt Technologies.
Thus far, Hunt Technologies’ PLC-based system has been able to meet many of SCP’s needs. For example, while monthly reads via a phone-based AMR system beat manual reads, daily reads via the PLC-based system have numerous advantages, including:
- The ability to identify peaks and valleys in an individual customer’s energy usage patterns, often resulting in timely answers to billing queries.
- Equipment failure notification. With a daily read, the utility is informed within 24 hours of any damaged meters, as opposed to waiting up to 30 days for notification.
- Increased accuracy, as SCP would previously perform manual reads every other month, with alternating months being reported (often estimated) by the customer. This increased accuracy reduces customer billing queries and increases utility revenue.
An added plus is that since SCP owns the communications infrastructure (the power lines), the utility has the ability to determine maintenance priorities at its own discretion, which is particularly helpful during storms.
SCP also has been able to leverage some of its existing communications infrastructure as AMR units are deployed. The utility has placed communications “hubs” at 31 of its 63 distribution substations, with each hub functioning as a data collection point for the AMR units in its area. The data collected at each hub is then forwarded to SCP headquarters via the existing communications link already in place for a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system.
In most cases, this is a leased telephone line or a cellular link. The exception is in the Belmont region of SCP’s service territory, where the data is transmitted to headquarters via a satellite link. The Belmont region is geographically dispersed from the rest of the utility’s service territory (about 96 miles from headquarters). SCP acquired the Belmont region customers as the result of a 1992 merger with another rural electric cooperative. Cellular service is not reliable across this rural area and leasing a telephone was determined to be cost prohibitive; the satellite service is proving to be a cost-effective, reliable alternative for this portion of SCP’s service territory.
While the PLC-based system is certainly proving to be successful, SCP did not want to walk away from its investment in the phone-based system. To this end, the utility still has more than 4,000 phone-based units in place, but has placed these in strategic locations across the service territory-behind breakers, regulators or line switches-so the utility can still isolate faults relatively quickly.
Now the PLC-based system is being deployed across SCP’s service territory with the goal of having all 100,000 customers online by 2006. Currently, 23,000 of the sites are installed and roughly 18,000 are being added per year.
Installation of the AMR devices is being performed by both an outside contractor and utility staff. Many of the remaining meter readers have been retrained as meter technicians, which gives SCP the ability to maintain and operate the system with minimal outside support. Additionally, the installation process is providing SCP with an opportunity to retrofit its older meters, some of which have been in service for more than 30 years.
As mentioned previously, SCP’s migration to AMR has resulted in significant customer service improvements, such as the aforementioned daily reading advantages. SCP is also realizing significant gains on the billing side of the equation. At the top of the list, of course, is increased accuracy. The numerous “opportunities” for manual errors-from the read itself to the data handling process-are being eliminated. The aggregated AMR data is downloaded into SCP’s billing system at corporate offices. Once the data is in the billing system the usual calculation and presentment of the bill is performed, but the utility now has additional capabilities as well.
SCP has developed what it calls its “Turtle Look Up,” which is proving to be a valuable tool for customer service representatives (CSRs). With this new abundance of timely and accurate energy usage information, the utility’s CSRs can go directly to the “Turtle Look Up” screen on their PCs while they are on the phone with a customer. By entering just one piece of information-the meter number-the CSR has access to a wealth of data, including:
- Current meter reading
- Date and time the meter was posted
- High demand reading
- Date and time peak demand occurred
- Reading data as far back as 45 days
This information is available within one second of hitting “enter,” transforming a lengthy, difficult customer problem into a very smooth, fast transaction, saving SCP time and money while improving customer service.
The “Turtle Look Up” system is a Web-enabled application available via SCP’s corporate intranet. It requires only a standard browser, such as Internet Explorer and is available at SCP’s four remote offices in addition to its headquarters office.
SCP is dealing with many of the same challenges facing most U.S. utilities; namely, technology evolution, deregulation and competitive challenges, changing workforce demographics, and a need and desire to improve customer service. The utility has been able to view these potentially major “problems” as opportunities-the result being an AMR system that is meeting many operational, financial and customer service needs.
SCP has found that the keys to being able to meet these challenges are:
- Proactive management that is willing to try new ways of working to improve the utility, and is able to change course when the situation dictates (as has been the case with SCP’s “mixture” of communications media).
- A dedicated, flexible workforce, that realizes its importance in helping the utility meet its goals (as is the case with an SCP staff that has evolved from low-tech to high-tech).
- Working with a supplier that viewed the utility as a partner, and was willing to work with the utility to ensure long-term success (as SCP found to be the case in working with Hunt Technologies).
Utility managers that grasp new technologies and understand their role-and limitations-in meeting the challenges of today’s marketplace will build a lasting success for their organization and its customers. That’s the philosophy SCP applied to its migration from manual reads to AMR, and it’s a philosophy that’s applicable all across the utility industry.
Paul Shaeffer is the Metering Supervisor for South Central Power Company in Lancaster, Ohio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.