Outage Reporting—An Emerging Benefit of Advanced AMR

Ed Finamore

When a well-known utility first contemplated installation of its advanced automatic meter reading (AMR) network, the usual reasons were given: improved operating efficiencies, error reduction, reduced theft of service and availability of new value-added services permitted under the state’s rapidly approaching competitive deregulated environment. Already willing to accept the technology risk associated with advanced AMR installation, this utility was confident the system could be justified solely on its meter data collection merits.

But it wanted more.

The company believed that under utility deregulation a new set of performance metrics would emerge, steering companies away from the traditional “cost to serve” ratemaking philosophy and into a new era of performance-based ratemaking. In this new regulatory environment, it was believed that retail as well as wholesale competition would drive energy prices down, and that a restructured utility industry would begin to separate companies into regulated vs. deregulated entities. The regulated utilities, or wires companies, would live under a new set of rules, which would include unbundled rate structures. Efficiency, system reliability and customer satisfaction would become the critical parameters by which regulated utilities would be measured and rate increases evaluated.

This utility’s goal, therefore, was to achieve much more than the traditional and often stated benefits of AMR. It also wanted to bring about improvements in system reliability and customer satisfaction to satisfy increased regulatory scrutiny in these areas, and to mitigate the continuing effects of high energy rates. The utility’s decision makers believed that advanced AMR could benefit the company further by delivering on several other fronts, most notably in the area of improved outage response, and they succeeded in carrying out their plan.

Outage Notification Benefits

Next to the cost of energy, customers often cite reliable, uninterrupted power as the most important consideration when evaluating their utility’s performance. An effective outage management system (OMS) that provides rapid notification and timely response can shorten a utility’s outage restoration time and create a positive impact on customer satisfaction, a key utility performance measure. Advanced AMR systems with outage detection capabilities can improve on the notification side of the overall outage management equation as well.

An effective OMS does more than improve customer satisfaction, it also can improve the bottom line. Shortening outage time will increase revenue. Documenting specific times and locations of power outages can support a company’s system-wide analysis of distribution circuit performance, which is needed to identify weaknesses and improve overall distribution system reliability. While utility SCADA systems play an important role in this effort, AMR systems can pinpoint outages down to the customer level and provide additional information necessary to evaluate distribution network secondary wiring and transformer problems. This type of information frequently falls below a SCADA system’s radar screen. When integrated with a company’s geographic information system (GIS), the result can produce an even more powerful, endpoint-driven network analysis capability that could drive the company’s asset management and capital allocation processes to even higher performance levels.

Outage Support Components

For utility AMR systems to support outage management, they should contain features that are typically associated with advanced forms of AMR:

* Advanced metering functions. The metering device must be capable of detecting power outages and delivering outage and restoration alarms with associated time stamps.

* Advanced communications capabilities. The AMR network should be capable of communicating unscheduled outage and restoration alarms and restoration events in addition to normal energy consumption information.

* Real-time communications. A network communications medium capable of delivering actionable outage information in real time, or near real time, upon receipt of an alarm from the meter should be used.

* Utility data processing capabilities. A company should employ a data gathering and management system capable of separating out outage alarms and delivering them to its operations center for use with SCADA and mapping systems to quickly pinpoint and respond to customer outages.

* Power outage restoration. The processing of restoration alarms is critical in verifying that power to individual customers has been restored and helping with prediction of restoration times for other customers who are still without power.

While these requirements may seem like a tall order, a number of advanced metering systems and devices are becoming available with the necessary functions to achieve this goal. Inbound telephone and some wireless communications solutions are available that can deliver alarms in near real time, though on-peak pricing costs for outage data delivered during peak usage periods could become an issue for some communications alternatives. Increased use of the Internet may also become a viable alternative as more systems become Internet-enabled, as utilities expand Ethernet availability in their substations, and as more advanced meters are equipped with Ethernet capability under glass.

Utility system operations personnel frequently point out that SCADA provides them with early, accurate notification of circuit outages and restorations. However, they will also note that the restoration process is not so precise, particularly in storm conditions when widespread outages cause extensive damage to street secondary services. Under these conditions, restoration notification at the meter level can support a critical filtering process that monitors individual outages and advises utility personnel of which customers remain without power.

Emerging Meter Technologies

More companies are beginning to produce metering devices with outage detection capabilities. In addition to time and date stamping of outage events, devices should be capable of initiating alarms under loss of power conditions, storing information in non-volatile memory, and employing a clock mechanism that maintains and restores time intervals for accurate application of time-of-use rates. Some examples:

* Power Measurement. PM’s ION 8000 Series of meters provides advanced metering capabilities including outage alarm delivery through use of its Outage Dialback feature. It is also Ethernet-enabled. The meter’s internal modem is powered by an independent power source for communicating outage information during outage periods.

* Comverge Technologies. This company’s Maingate C&I and Home gateway solutions can provide outage information using wireless cellular digital packet data (CDPD), CDMA and inbound telephone. When integrated with its PowerCAMP software, the systems can process outage data through to a company’s CIS and OMS.

* Distribution Control Systems Inc. DCSI’s TWACS system can monitor transponder status, including outage and restoration state, to assist a utility in managing the overall power restoration process. The outage information could be integrated with a utility’s mapping systems and tied to GPS coordinates to provide precise locational information.

* Global Data. Utilities looking for a communications interface device that can deliver metering data, including outage alarms, from most available meters could consider GD’s StarStream multi-port product line, which communicates with most meter manufacturers’ advanced meters, and can transmit data using AMPS, CDPD and more recently CDMA wireless technology, powered by an internal power supply.

Communications is Key

Regardless of a meter device’s outage detection capabilities, its ability to support a utility’s OMS is only as good as the communications link that transmits the data. A range of options using telephony, wireless analog and digital technologies, licensed vs. unlicensed frequencies and paging systems is available in the marketplace today. A utility should look at cost vs. coverage, as well as pre-existing company resources such as licensed frequencies, and evaluate the strategic importance of the system to its overall corporate objectives before making a final communications decision.

For systems requiring Internet-based access and minimal system latency, companies such as BlueSpan and AES-IntelliNet Services now offer near real-time data delivery capabilities using licensed frequencies as well as public networks. Internet systems offer widespread accessibility with reduced overall transport cost, and they can also be supportive of a utility’s data storage needs and other critical systems such as billing and CIS by using open system formats and protocols such as ASCII and XML.

Utility Automation Lines Beginning to Blur

Advances in software and communications technology, including the pervasive use of Internet-based systems and open protocols, are creating opportunities for utilities to integrate their networks in a manner that leverages costs and blurs the lines between individual systems. Advanced geospatial technology, for example, has produced mapping systems, with GPS coordinates frequently included, that if linked to a utility’s SCADA and AMR systems could significantly improve utility operations. Indeed, some advanced meters today are already enabled for open SCADA and control system protocols such as Modbus and DNP. And the increasing availability of multi-use fiber backbone and Ethernet communications in utility substations can provide still other opportunities and access points for delivery of outage data and certain broadband applications, such as video.

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Utilities are just beginning to appreciate the outage detection potential of advanced metering systems as they continues to refine the business case for AMR. As metering technology continues to evolve, it can be expected to play an even greater role in a utility’s overall network automation portfolio.

Ed Finamore is founder and president of ValuTech Solutions, a management consulting firm specializing in utility automation systems and applications, including demand response and AMR. He can be reached at (412) 299-5684, or visit his website at www.valutechsolutions.com.

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