Raising the Bar for AMI Technology

By Tim Wolf, Itron

In “Crossing the Chasm,” the widely read book on marketing high-technology that was first published in 1991, author Geoffrey Moore asserted that for new and innovative technology to “cross the chasm” from a few early adopters to broad market acceptance, three things are vital:

  • regulation or legislation favorable to its wider adoption;
  • a “killer app” that fulfills the technology needs of a hungry market; and,
  • standardization to deliver the same technology to multiple suppliers that levels the playing field and opens new doors for innovation.
Click here to enlarge image

For Moore, one out of three would typically be enough to traverse his chasm and propel widespread adoption. In the rapidly changing category of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), you could make a very strong argument that all three catalysts are present and accounted for.

According to industry estimates, within the last year, utilities in the U.S. and Canada have issued request for proposals (RFPs) for more than 25 million AMI electricity meters. The value of these RFPs is estimated to be well over $2 billion. It would appear the bridge has been laid across the chasm.

Looking at these three drivers of technology adoption, it’s fairly clear that Moore’s construct is at work with AMI technology. In terms of regulation, EPACT 2005 provided clear impetus for states and their commissions to begin looking at advanced metering, time-based pricing and demand response technologies. And while many states have not responded affirmatively to the EPACT standard calling on commissions and utilities to begin putting the technology in place, that legislation clearly shined the light on advanced metering as part of the solution to the challenges of rising energy costs, delivery system reliability, and environmental stewardship. In addition, an increasing number of states and commissions have set out with their own plans and programs to encourage deployment of AMI technology, with California, Texas and Ontario leading the way.

The “Killer App”

The clear “killer app” that AMI offers is connecting business and consumers more closely to the actual costs of generating and delivering electricity. This is through time-based pricing and providing utilities and their customers with tools to conserve energy usage and manage peak load through demand response.

Virtually all AMR/AMI systems have been built on proprietary communications standards, with little if any flexibility to accommodate multiple communication protocols. The third element to span Moore’s chasm, standardization, requires AMI systems to provide a communication pathway-a standard for all to use-into the home for data presentation, demand response and load control. The proprietary systems make perfect sense for the job these systems have been asked to do thus far-automate meter reading-but this outmoded approach to system architecture is ill-suited to meet the business requirements of today’s AMI business case. It is unlikely that one communications medium will provide the magic bullet to meet the needs of all utilities. AMI systems must be flexible in their architecture to accommodate any number of communications protocols, including RF, PLC, BPL, GPRS or any IP-addressable communications network. This flexibility in communications becomes even more important to achieve the synergies between AMI systems and the emerging smart grid.

Open Standards

How important are open standards to AMI technology? Think about your e-mail. Thanks to the SMTP protocol, e-mail’s universal open standard, you don’t have to worry about whether your message reaches the recipient, so long as you type the address in correctly. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a T1 line, broadband, Wi-Fi or dial-up. It doesn’t matter who your internet service provider is, and it doesn’t matter what file you attach to your message. The message gets there thanks to open standards. In a similar vein, the HTTP protocol allows you to summon instantaneously any one of millions of web pages hosted on servers throughout the world. The adoption of these open standards has marked the upward surge of e-mail and internet, lowering costs, expanding access and opening the doors to innovation from sources never imagined just a few years ago.

So what do open standards mean in the context of AMI? The same rules apply as in other technologies. Open standards lower costs by leveling the competitive playing field while enabling easier, less costly integration with other systems or products. This year, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is expected to approve the ANSI C12.22 standard for transport of metering-based data over a network medium. The C12.22 standard provides an application layer protocol that builds on the widely used C12.19 standard for meter data tables and provides standardized network addressability and security.

Similar to the SMTP protocol, the ANSI C12.22 standard enables meter data to be collected and devices controlled over any communication network so long as the message conforms to the protocol. By deploying a system that is C12.22-compliant, utilities can insulate themselves from the risk knowing that the system can adapt to the rapidly changing communications landscape and ensure that they will be able to communicate with their meters with whatever communication protocol best meets their business needs.

In-home Communications

Looking beyond the meter and into the customers’ home, the AMI industry’s increasingly broad adoption of the ZigBee communication standard for in-home communications provides standardization for how meters communicate with in-home devices such as smart thermostats, in-home displays, gateways, load control switches etc. ZigBee is an open wireless communication standard whose cost, data capacity, range, and battery life (where applicable) make it an ideal standard for data presentation, load control etc, while keeping the door wide open for smart appliances and other future energy management innovations in the future.

In addition to two-way communication data collection and home area communications, open standards for AMI systems provide critical capabilities to support the smart grid, a distribution system that is intelligent, automated and self-healing to optimize reliability and efficiency. Today’s AMI business cases assume increased distribution-side benefit and value through outage detection, voltage monitoring, net metering, and remote disconnect/reconnect. Below the substation level, utilities will look to their AMI systems to deliver critical data and decision support, as well as capacitor bank switching and other types of localized control. Increasingly, utilities will seek one communication network to provide both meter data collection/communication as well as “sub-SCADA” functionality. Open standards in AMI systems will greatly facilitate this convergence between AMI and distribution automation systems.

In this broader context, standards and definitions for AMI technology must expand to fill a broader set of requirements for both utilities and the customers they serve. In August of 2006, in response to legislation and market forces, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued the following definition of advanced metering: “Advanced metering is a metering system that records customer consumption [and possibly other parameters] hourly or more frequently and that provides for daily or more frequent transmittal of measurements over a communication network to a central collection point.”

By this definition, any automated meter reading system operated through a fixed collection network can live up to the FERC definition of advanced metering. Such fixed network systems might be seen as advanced, when compared to other forms of AMR, operated by walk-by or drive-by AMR systems, or manual meter reading. However, the magnitude of the challenges and the opportunity in addressing energy management requires a more expansive and advanced definition of AMI.

AMI Attributes

Fundamentally, AMI represents an infrastructure that utilizes smart meters with advanced two-way communications to enable utilities to meet their business needs for meter data collection, empowers all their customers to actively and frequently participate in demand response and energy conservation, while supporting movement toward the smart grid of the future. To meet these requirements, it is critical that any AMI solution provides the following attributes and capabilities:

  • Meter Data Management (MDM) to provide a robust, scalable data repository to manage the huge volumes of data AMI systems collect while making that data readily accessible to users for a wide variety of applications beyond customer billing.
  • Open-standards architecture to enable true interoperability between systems, flexibility in communications choices, and innovation from third-party technology providers for applications not currently envisioned.
  • Two-way communication to every meter to enable advanced control capabilities as well as well as remote device configuration and firmware updates. The ability to download new firmware to the meter is particularly valuable. AMI meters need the ability to respond to the new dynamism of rates and programs. Since it is cost prohibitive to visit a meter to update its programming, AMI meters need the ability to download and install new settings and firmware without utility personnel physically visiting the meter.
  • Integrated demand response and load control capability enabled by open-architecture communications standard, such as ZigBee, in all meters and ready to connect with smart thermostats, smart appliances, in-home displays, and load control switches for conservation, data presentment and energy management purposes.
  • Advanced functionality such as universal load-limiting remote disconnect/reconnect capability, positive outage notification and restoration verification, and automatic tamper/theft detection to support deployment of the smart grid of the future.

While no two utilities have identical AMI business drivers and requirements, it’s safe to say that today’s AMI business case can be seen as a three-legged stool. One leg represents benefits and cost savings associated with automation of meter reading; the second leg represents the benefits of demand response and the ability of AMI to help manage peak load; and the third leg represents distribution-side benefits that enable a utility to operate its distribution system more reliably and efficiently.

Without all three of those legs, it will be tough for the stool to stand on its own. Open standards, advanced functionality, and IT infrastructure built around MDM software are essential components that will ensure that AMI solutions provide utilities and their customers with the capability and flexibility to ensure the investment delivers a strong return on investment.

Tim Wolf is the Director of Marketing for Itron, based in Liberty Lake, WA. He chairs the AMR/AMI subcommittee for DistribuTECH and has been a DistribuTECH Steering Committee member since 1999.

Previous articleELP Volume 85 Issue 4
Next articleNewEnergy Associates releases SENDOUT 12.0 gas portfolio optimization system

No posts to display