MDM Shopping? There are plenty of factors to weigh

By Betsy Loeff, contributing writer

After learning about meter data management (MDM) systems from top vendors in February, the IT team at San Antonio’s CPS Energy knew their 2007 priorities would change. “This is an enterprise-type implementation,” says Anthony Hawkins, senior project manager for the utility. Done right, an MDM system will feed consumption data to many systems and applications throughout a utility.

That’s why Hawkins gathered a cross-functional team to explore what various systems have to offer and, later, to write a request for proposals from MDM vendors. Implementing an MDM system will be step one in this utility’s advanced metering deployment. For now, the team has many system features to examine and judge.

Building Blocks
There are a number of basics that every MDM system should offer. A data repository is one, according to industry players such as Chris King, chief strategy officer at eMeter, and Glenn MacRill, vice president of sales and service at LODESTAR.

Data validation, editing and estimating also are key capabilities, according to the MDM developers. Called VEE, these functions ensure that data get consolidated, cleansed and, when necessary, edited manually. As for estimation, that’s the system’s ability to fill in gaps when readings don’t come every time they should.

Beyond these basics, however, there are a number of factors to assess. For instance, Hawkins hopes that his MDM system will help CPS managers manage the metering deployment itself.

The “CPS” in CPS Energy stands for “city public service.” CPS is the nation’s largest municipally owned provider of both gas and electricity. With 656,000 electric customers and 313,000 buying natural gas, CPS will have nearly a million devices to install during the AMI deployment. No wonder Hawkins says he has eyeballed MDM as an inventory-tracking tool to use when putting all that new equipment in the field. He points to eMeter as an MDM developer known for being “good on asset management.”

Nexus Energy Software, on the other hand, is an MDM developer Hawkins admires for being “strong on the software applications to support distribution engineers.” Also, he thinks Nexus provides “customer-friendly web interfaces” that would facilitate a consumer portal. And, since CPS managers are interested in applications that will help in distribution-system planning, he’s intrigued to see such functionality available as add-on modules.

Integration is another concern for Hawkins and the CPS team. Hawkins noted that Itron, having just announced a new partnership with SAP, could offer integration know-how in linking up to the utility’s CIS, an SAP product.

“Meter data management systems, from an enterprise perspective, are designed so that they feed data to other, downstream systems,” LODESTAR’s MacRill explains. Hence, ease of integration and “open architecture is something people look for.”

Other considerations include:

Vendor neutrality and independence: “Since the MDM must integrate with different AMI systems, it might be a challenge to link elements created by competing companies,” King says. MacRill adds: “With the proliferation of meter-reading technologies and mergers or acquisitions in the utility space, a lot of utilities now have a variety of meter-data collection technologies in place. The ability to integrate easily with a lot of data collection devices and technologies is a key feature.”

Business-process management: According to King, an MDM is one place to automate various business processes that are driven by meter data. For instance, “when you get an exception report from the MDM, you need an application that handles the exception in some way, such as sending a dispatch notice to the work-management system so a field service tech can check out the problem.” Not all MDM software has such capabilities.

System scalability: King also notes that the MDM must be able to handle escalating numbers of advanced metering units, increased data storage capacity and additional applications. “The point is to be able to handle hourly data for mllions of meters, as well as multiple and changing applications,” he adds.

Aggregation capabilities: For utilities planning to offer time-of-use rates, the MDM should be able to identify when consumption occurs and aggregate that usage according to the rate in effect at the time. Aggregation applies to utility systems beyond billing, too. “You could aggregate all the meter reads up to a substation or transformer level, and send that aggregate to distribution planning,” MacRill says. “An MDM needs very flexible aggregation hierarchies.”

With all the MDM features and options available, the CPS Energy team still is mulling over its wish list and RFP details. Nonetheless, utility managers hope to issue an RFP in May, make a buying decision this summer, and get a bare-bones MDM system installed by year-end.

Betsy Loeff has been freelancing for the past 14 years from her home in Golden, Colo. She has been covering utilities for almost four years as a contributor to AMRA News, the monthly publication of the Automatic Meter Reading Association.

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