By Eric Smith and Tony Summerlin, Gestalt
With an increased focus on customer interaction and data efficiency, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) initiatives have become a priority for utilities throughout North America. While the trend is still taking hold, the benefits associated with this giant technological leap are many.
The most obvious benefit is the decrease in man-on-the-street meter reading costs-fewer people in the field, fewer service trucks, decreased personnel costs and decreased personnel-related liability. But that’s just the beginning. AMI can truly change the utility landscape. Through AMI, “smart” meters can collect and send customer information and usage data, in some cases, as frequently as every 15 minutes. This creates unprecedented levels of data to inform and enhance all aspects of the utility process, but it also creates monstrous amounts of data to be managed.
It is clear that automated meter reading has unlocked a new dimension in the increasingly competitive utility environment. However, it is also clear that for the true benefits of automated metering to be realized, utilities must properly manage and leverage this new wealth of data.
Proper data management is the obstacle utilities must overcome to stay competitive in a more consumer-facing environment. Meter data warehousing, the centralized storage and management of data, can help overcome that obstacle.
The Operational Advantage
Perhaps the main benefit to meter data warehousing is the overall increase in utility operational efficiency. More data from more sources means better business intelligence and the ability to make better decisions. As a result, there are many layers of new capabilities to be realized for both the utility and the consumer. More efficient customer service, billing and the marketing of new services to customers are just a few.
From a customer service perspective, one central location for billing data provides ease of access for customer service representatives and account management support. Additionally, having just one system to maintain and manage all of the utility billing and settlement quality data, no matter the frequency, saves significant amounts of time and resources for those representatives-and the customer.
Through meter data warehousing, the interval data is stored in an open database connectivity (ODBC)-compliant database. This makes it possible to access the interval data from any application, regardless of which database management system is handling the data. ODBC-compliant databases allow utility IT personnel to access the data via standard SQL queries. This feature provides the utility client easy access to the interval data without requiring the data warehouse provider’s involvement. Many third-party reporting packages (Crystal Reports, Cognos, Dynasight) work seamlessly with ODBC-compliant databases. These packages help to provide additional rich views and analysis of the interval data.
The Ability to Grow
With large volumes of data being collected daily along with the validation of that data, scalability could become an issue, so having a system that can grow as the utility implements AMI solutions is a must. ODBC-compliant data warehouse systems have been successful in other industries, and companies such as Oracle, IBM’s DB2 and Microsoft’s SQL Server have reaped the benefits. They have been benchmarked with large-scale databases and have demonstrated the ability to handle the transaction rates necessary to update large database records daily. Utilities will have to do the same.
Inherent with data warehouses is the ability to easily establish data table structures to identify additional utility meter data relationships. Meter asset management has traditionally relied upon disparate systems to provide this functionality. By centralizing the meter asset information such as meter type, purchase date, installation history, maintenance schedules, locations, etc., the utility has more valuable information to manage its critical meter assets more effectively. Having the meter asset data in one repository gives the utility the ability to more effectively interface with third-party meter asset management packages or use the warehouse for this valuable functionality.
As utilities move to total meter population AMIs, there will be multiple AMR solutions being used for data collection. Utilities must ensure that all meter data goes through the same validation/editing/estimation (VEE) rules. Having a meter data warehouse with an industry standard set of VEE rules assures the utility that rules are applied consistently across all classes of meter interval data. More important is the capability of a robust meter data warehousing VEE engine to do specific validation checks across the utility’s residential, commercial and industrial classes. Although VEE rules exist, in most instances for commercial and industrial customer classes, mass-market VEE is new and challenging ground.
Traditionally, as a utility added an additional AMR system for a new customer class or distribution system segment, it became necessary to develop a new set of interfaces to existing back-office systems. From the utility’s perspective, this would not only add additional interface cost but also open their secure IT environment to potential new vulnerability points. However, with all AMR data coming into a centralized data warehouse, only one system interface to the utility support systems is needed.
In a meter data warehousing environment, utilities will be able to leapfrog current marketing and customer retention efforts and offer programs such as web presentment-the ability for customers to view their activity and energy consumption patterns online. In turn, consumers will be able to make more informed consumption decisions. By providing the tools that allow customers to make their own decisions, utilities empower them to decrease consumption through financial incentives. Another customer-facing improvement is in the area of customer service. In a meter data warehousing environment, all levels of utility personnel have fast access to the same customer data. As a result, the processes of customer move-ins and move-outs and meter replacements, for example, become more efficient. All of these components point to increased customer satisfaction and retention.
With meter data warehousing, utilities become more of a commodities broker since they have the total load of their system on day-plus-one, allowing for better acquisition or generation planning, and more accurate forecasting for generation needs the next day.
The final growth advantage is improved understanding of the customer. Understanding information about customer usage patterns, for example, allows utilities to market specific offerings to qualified customers based on their history and preferences.
The Resource Management Advantage
Though meter data warehousing can improve most every function of a utility, it can be stated that, from a resource management standpoint, the benefits fall into three main categories: load management, load forecasting and, of course, cost savings.
Automated meter reading, can provide information that allows utilities to make decisions in near real-time. The tremendous volume of data generated through AMI enables utilities to closely monitor consumption-in some cases up to four times per hour-and prepare for any load imbalance. In an AMI environment, the utility has the ability to control rates based on consumption patterns and, ultimately, reduce demand. Utilities can determine load constraints based on aggregated load to transformers, feeders and substations, and develop a course of action to regulate any imbalance before it occurs. This can take the form of shifting load to alternative paths in the short term, or inserting reductions in peak demand through implementing pricing incentives or demand response programs in the long term.
Proper data management means better predictive capabilities for failure analysis and distribution optimization, and provides the information necessary to plug into a load distribution model that can offer insight into the effects on unbalanced energy distribution. In an AMI environment, having the benefit of access to day-plus-one total load, allows for better load forecasting and planning on a more real-time basis.
Where a utility has provided an AMR solution for all customer classes, it has a view of actual total system day-plus-one load. This provides the utility with the ability to be proactive in identifying potential system trouble spots. For example, when generation shortages are a possibility, AMR technology provides the utility with the ability to address the potential situation.
For example, if a utility’s distribution system is being influenced by weather, either an extreme hot or cold spell, the utility can do predictive planning based on the view of the total system day-plus-one load. If it appears that a system peak may be occurring, preventive measures can be implemented such as critical peak pricing, demand side management (DSM) programs, and load control programs that can address issues before they happen.
Knowing consumer consumption habits allows loads to be shifted. Shifting loads means saving money. It is difficult to assign a dollar value to the savings created by a robust meter data warehousing system although it is clear the consolidation of all meter data, whether interval or readings, provides more business continuity for the distribution company. Although hard to quantify, a significant financial component linked to meter data warehousing is cost avoidance derived from consumer-driven load shifting. Consumer intelligence provided by DSM rates such as time of use (TOU), hourly pricing, or load control initiatives with TOU “smart” meters as the gateway, hold the key to realizing the financial benefits of an effective meter data management system.
AMI’s greatest benefit is reducing the overall demand for energy, thus eliminating entirely or deferring the need for new generation. By enabling consumers to be smart users of electricity, utilities or distribution companies can shift peaks at critical times by providing consumers with an incentive to save money or pay significantly more if they use large amounts during critical peak times. From the consumer’s perspective, they should expect more reliable electricity and the opportunity for less costly electricity based on DSM programs and more reliable distribution.
While the benefits of AMI are well documented, some utilities see it as a necessary evil rather than an investment in technology that must be made to gain competitive advantage in the new energy landscape. Forward-thinking utilities understand that AMI is only the beginning. The organizations that demonstrate an ability to use the new data in ways that help move their businesses forward will see AMI’s full advantage. The technology exists to make that happen.
A meter data warehouse is the next-level tool that allows utilities to extract more value from their meter data and realize a new dimension in business intelligence. Meter data warehousing requires additional investment on top of automated meters, but the return on that investment cannot be emphasized enough. In today’s hyper-competitive utility environment, it doesn’t pay to be penny wise and pound foolish. The organizations that make meter data warehousing a priority will rise to the top of the new utility landscape. â®â®
Eric Smith is energy & utilities executive and Tony Summerlin is principal consultant at Gestalt LLC, a provider of technology solutions that enable organizations to make better decisions and maximize the value of current IT investments.