Using Meter Data to Enhance Customer Communications

By Curtis Spencer, Metadigm Services, and Ted Spangenberg, Jr., Gulf Power Co.

One of the biggest challenges (and most important factors) in a utility’s AMI deployment project is proper customer communication. According to a recent study by J.D. Power & Associates, customers who are aware of smart grids and smart meters (and their utility’s efforts to implement them) are notably more satisfied than are customers without this awareness.

For Gulf Power Co., excellent customer service is a top priority, and they saw an opportunity to improve customer service by upgrading to smart meters. Two high-priority objectives of their AMI deployment project that would enhance their customer service were:

  • To acquire an increased amount of quality customer consumption data and information that will, in turn, provide better customer service and allow the customer to be more informed about consumption usage.
  • To attain better power outage information. Before AMI deployment, Gulf Power did not have a broad-based distribution SCADA system, which provides utilities better information and response. Having smart meters, along with enhancing the SCADA system, will allow Gulf Power to know exactly where outages exist and where restoration needs to occur.

Gulf Power, a Southern Co. subsidiary, partnered with Metadigm Services on a full AMI deployment project based on Metadigm’s success with another Southern Co. subsidiary, Alabama Power. The project will replace 400,000 meters over two years, which will save significantly on labor costs.

To meet Gulf Power’s objectives, Metadigm focused on establishing proper communication and delivering rich, accurate customer records. For Gulf Power, Metadigm engineered a series of custom solutions from pre- to post-deployment that ensured thorough and 100 percent accurate meter data is provided to the utility and ultimately delivered to customers on their utility bills.

Planning and Communications

Good customer service starts with a strong communications plan. The average consumer is not aware of smart meters’ benefits. In fact, for many consumers, their introduction to smart meters has come from national news coverage like the dramatic increase in electricity bills Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) customers experienced in the summer of 2009. PG&E was under scrutiny because it had just gone through AMI deployment, and then its customers complained of substantially higher bills, blaming the new smart meters. Later, after numerous independent investigations, the cause of the higher bills was determined to not trace back to the AMI deployment, but there was far less news attention about these findings.

Before the first meter was installed for Gulf Power, Metadigm worked with Gulf Power to develop a thorough AMI deployment plan, which included developing a customer communication plan. The plan was designed to assist Gulf Power in proactively educating customers on the benefits of the smart meter upgrade. As the most efficient routes for replacing the meters were designed, Gulf Power scheduled automated phone calls to its customers letting them know that the meter was being updated and the timeframe in which it would be done. Each week, Metadigm sends Gulf Power a list of the customers they are contacting in accordance with the AMI deployment schedule.

Metadigm technicians installing the new meters were trained in customer communication and informed about the appropriate utility contact for consumer questions they can’t answer. They were required to let the homeowner know they were there and that power would be disrupted while the new meter was installed. In the case that the homeowner was not present, the installers would leave a door hanger informing the homeowner of what happened and the appropriate contact information for questions. Metadigm also established a 24-hour-a-day/seven-days-a-week call center that would allow for the customer to reschedule an install, answer questions about the upgrade and provide any other pertinent information.

Gathering Data

Gulf Power wanted to maintain their strong customer service and use the smart meter upgrade to improve it. What really helped this initiative was the method Metadigm designed for collecting and managing the meter data to provide accurate and detailed customer records. One of the most important steps in the deployment process is recording the last meter read. If the data recorded in the last meter read is incorrect, then the result could be an inaccurate customer bill. An inaccurate bill that is too high could result in an unhappy Gulf Power customer, and an inaccurate bill that is too low is lost revenue for Gulf Power.

Above shows Gulf Power’s last meter read of 36767 on Nov. 17, as well as the last meter read taken on Dec. 1 by Metadigm before the smart meter replacement. The meter read 36048 and also was captured in the photo for verification.

The handheld microcomputers used to gather meter data were engineered with photo capability. The technician not only manually enters the data for the last meter read but also takes a photo of the last meter read. The photos are uploaded to the customer file, and can be used to verify meter data if needed. (See meter comparison photos, next page.)

During the Gulf Power deployment process, Metadigm gathered the meter data and verified the geospatial data-transformer number associated with the meter, which saved Gulf Power from having to go back and update this information after the deployment process.

Metadigm designed a method for ensuring that the transformer and meter data gathered were the most up-to-date and accurate. This involved engineering software for handhelds that was designed to validate meter location in relation to the appropriate transformer number. Metadigm did this by creating an algorithm that takes the GPS coordinate, namely latitude and longitude, and compared that location with the X, Y coordinates that Gulf Power had for the transformer that serves each meter. If there’s a significant difference in what Gulf Power has on file versus the new findings, Metadigm goes to the corresponding transformer for verification. This process detects and resolves inaccurate transformer location coordinates, saving Gulf Power money in additional labor costs and improving the efficiency of the transformers to aid with outage detection.

Analyzing Data

Metadigm engineered a series of solutions for ensuring that the data captured is 100 percent accurate, and they’ve found that for every 1 million meters that they read, 13,000 errors are discovered that must be resolved.

Once meter data are gathered, data move through Metadigm’s network operations center for analysis using a series of data-cleansing algorithms. Metadigm designed automated analytics that perform multiple verification checks for data gathered at each completed meter site—this analysis provides a 100 percent audit that results in accurate billing data being delivered to Gulf Power each work day.

Once data have been verified for 100 percent accuracy, the information is provided in a daily report to Gulf Power that is seamlessly uploaded and automatically updates all of the utility’s customer records. This updated information, including the GPS coordinates and the photos, are available to Gulf Power’s customer service department, which provides the department additional verification information when discussing customer billing information or addressing questions regarding the smart meter change-out process. Gulf Power and Metadigm are almost halfway through their AMI deployment project. By working together to develop a proactive communications plan and accurate customer records, the customer service team receives fewer customer calls. For customers that do call in, the department can verify information and quickly serve customer needs.

Curtis Spencer is Metadigm Services’ area vice president. Ted Spangenberg, Jr., P.E., is Gulf Power Co.’s director of military affairs and special projects.

MORE INSIGHT AT HTTP://POWER-GRID.COM

Find more information online by going to the website and typing “meter data” into the search engine. You’ll find:

  • A note about Ecuador utility Elàƒ©ctrica de Guayaquil completing a smart meter implementation,
  • Public Service Co. of Oklahoma’s choice for residential energy management service,
  • “ARRA Paves Smart Grid Path with Cash” by Senior Editor Kathleen Davis,
  • And more.

Visit http://power-grid.com for all the details.

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