By Guerry Waters, Oracle Utilities Global Business Unit
Advanced-metering infrastructure (AMI) helps utilities respond to emerging customer and community needs. Utilities might miss many of its benefits, however, if they regard AMI as primarily an evolutionary step in consumption measurement. AMI is a data revolution with implications for virtually every utility department and function.
Not every utility, however, begins its examination of AMI from the vantage point of its potential for the entire organization. Many initiate AMI discussions in metering or billing departments. Some permit individual departments to solidify AMI designs before others become involved in the discussion.
The almost inevitable result of a bottom-up consideration of AMI is that initial investments fail to provide optimal return. Strategic executive leadership on AMI–from project inception to completion–is the only way to ensure that the initial AMI plan will endure.
Leadership in AMI
To some extent, the utility industry has fallen victim to a naming convention. Advanced metering is more than the latest step in the slow but steady evolution of metering from single-read to time-of-use meters–from meters read by individuals to meters read through radio signals.
Utilities that recognize the revolutionary nature of AMI ensure that the project from the outset involves all departments in the discussion and benefits from strong executive sponsorship and the visibility it brings.
Executive guidance can ensure benefits across the utility, presented in realistic terms. While lower-level teams might have information that permits only focus on day-one system deliverables, executives are positioned to point out the contributions AMI may make to long-term utility goals. They might also be privy to information that alters the potential to realize some of the proposed benefits. Sharing this information with lower-level teams can help them shape realistic proposals and avoid developing elaborate scenarios based on incorrect assumptions.
Revolutionize Utility Revenue and Service Potential
Strategically evaluated and deployed, AMI can deliver benefits to utilities, including:
- Financial benefits. AMI can significantly speed cash flow and associated earnings on revenue. Bills go out immediately, cutting days off the meter-to-cash cycle. Customers can request disconnects as their moving vans pull away. Online or credit card payments turn final-bill collections from weeks to seconds.
- Cost reduction. AMI can slash the cost to connect and disconnect customers. It reduces contact center costs by providing customer representatives with information they need to resolve first-call complaints. AMI also can lower insurance and legal costs associated with field crews. It also can pinpoint blinkouts, reducing the cost of unnecessary tree trimming. Also, network managers can analyze and improve block-by-block power flows. Distribution planners can better size transformers. Engineers can identify and resolve bottlenecks and other inefficiencies. Results include increased throughput and reductions in grid overbuilding. Utilities can shave supply costs by matching procurement and delivery.
- Compliance improvements. AMI can ensure contract and regulatory compliance.
- Service improvements. AMI helps identify outages more quickly. It helps utilities pinpoint outages and nested outage locations. It also permits utilities to ensure outage resolution at every meter location.
- Accurate outage assumptions. AMI lets utilities dispatch in appropriate numbers crews that have the skills needed. AMI provides updates on outage location and expected duration. AMI helps call centers inform customers about service restoration timing. It also facilitates display of outage maps for customer and public-service use, detects voltage fluctuations and allows for monitoring and notification. Business development. AMI can help businesses analyze consumption, mull demand response (DR) options, monitor properties and equipment and even facilitate networks and gateways. Additionally, implementing AMI frequently uncovers electrical problems that can be resolved through maintenance–without fires or accidents.
AMI Design Considerations
The heart of an AMI system is data. Therefore, the only way to maximize value from AMI is to assess, at the outset:
- If and how every organization within the utility can use AMI data,
- The best ways to process that data,
- How and in what form to move that data from meter to utility organization, and
- How departments can benefit from modifying business processes to take advantage of AMI.
Field crews, for instance, can use AMI to check meter function. Credit and collections departments will want to take advantage of AMI theft-detection and remote-disconnect features.
AMI design must respond to every department’s data needs. Full utility participation in planning is the best way to prevent underdesigned AMI that delivers only a subset of potential benefits. Without this planning, utilities risk future unplanned expansions that entail excessive costs and long-term inefficiencies.
Utilities that begin with a limited vision of AMI’s potential–a residential DR program, for instance–typically discover that their initial design has:
- Destroyed the ability to use data for new purposes. A common error in AMI design involves using meters that process raw data and reporting only consolidated figures. While such meters solve one of the most difficult AMI issues–the sudden and staggering increase in data volume–they can destroy the value of the data for many other purposes, including grid analysis and portfolio refinement.
- Failed to provide for the long-term data storage vital to customer, portfolio and grid analyses. Many utilities have embarked on AMI by storing data in the billing system and purging it after 90 days. Data worth millions evaporates.
- Assigned tasks to applications unable to perform them efficiently. Bottom-up AMI planning may use the billing system to store interval data, but even billing systems that can handle the volume are unlikely to store it in ways most useful to outage- or mobile-workforce applications. Fewer still can provide portfolios and grid analysts with prompt and efficient data access. The struggle to do so might significantly slow bill processing, placing a utility’s financial integrity at risk.
- Launched the utility on a series of unplanned, overlapping and costly application replacements. A utility focused on DR may select a meter-data-management system that preprocesses and stores the data for the billing system. There is no guarantee, however, that it will be the best choice for needs such as supplying data to the mobile-workforce or outage system. To respond to emerging needs, utilities may choose between two costly alternatives: Customize the current application and create new integrations or replace the system.
Best Practices in Top-down Design
The litany of aforementioned problems can be avoided through top-down planning that:
- Brings all parties for initial discussions and agreements,
- Provides for collection and storage of all customer data, and
- Ensures equal access to data by all departments.
Successful AMI demands a fully realized meter-data-management system with flexible communications and data-processing functions and full integration to other applications.
Utility missions are changing. In the past, they focused on delivery of reasonably priced power. In the future, they will encompass supplies and services that facilitate sustainable use. Complicating this revolution in a utility’s mission are challenges such as growing populations, escalating commodity costs and rising standards of living that increase per capita demand.
Few utilities can address these changes with the legacy applications and data design structures. AMI is a future certainty.
Guerry Waters is vice president, industry strategy, with the Oracle Utilities Global Business Unit. He joined the Oracle Utilities Global Business Unit in 2000. His previous positions include vice president of energy information strategy at META Group (now Gartner) and CTO and director of technology strategy and engineering at Southern Co.