Rural Electric AMI Serves as Smart Grid Platform

By Jeremy Nelms, Talquin Electric Cooperative Inc.

Talquin Electric Co-op was more than ready to leap to an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) after 70 years of serving the power and water needs of a largely rural customer base in the Florida panhandle.

Meter data from the new AMI is displayed on the outage management system at Talquin Electric’s dispatch center, helping pinpoint and prioritize service restoration and repair.

Managing outages in a storm prone 2,600-square-mile territory covering four counties near Tallahassee was difficult, particularly when notifications depended on customers calling in. Customers also had to participate in a member-read system for billing, reading their own meters and documenting the readings on monthly billing statements. The shortcomings were apparent.

Two-way meter communication was deemed essential for cost-effective, reliable service and accurate billing. Talquin investigated all of the technologies available, studying other utility implementations nationwide and going as far a piloting a power line carrier system.

Ten antennae were installed on existing microwave towers and elevated water tanks over a 2,600-square-mile area to create Talquin Electric’s network canopy.

Power line carrier technology was later dismissed, as it was logistically impractical and more expensive for reading both electric and buried water meters. Although there is a way to marry data from water transmitters to a receiver inside of an electric meter, it is confusing to implement and difficult to maintain. Wireless radio frequency (RF) solutions were the best route for the utility’s AMI implementation.

Talquin’s Choice

Talquin weighed and evaluated close to 30 system requirements and narrowed the list of AMI vendors to five. Some key considerations were:

  • Initial cost,
  • Vendor location and service network,
  • Support for multiple meter vendors,
  • A solution for distribution automation,
  • Available home area networking and load control,
  • Produce outage notification and restoration notification,
  • Integrate with current enterprise information systems,
  • Remote disconnect functionality,
  • Ability to read water meters, and
  • Web-based interface for real-time usage data for both Talquin and its members.

A fixed, tower-based licensed spectrum network from Sensus became the system of choice after two years of exhaustive research. Upon reaching this conclusion, Talquin’s infrastructure modernization deployment was significantly accelerated through a Department of Energy Smart Grid Investment Grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Laying the Groundwork

Talquin Electric was ready for change; members felt that self-reads were problematic, creating issues when reconciling bills in a given month. A member might not be able to read his meter on a straight 30-day cycle, often resulting in over or under billing. Accurate and timely billing reads were extremely important as co-ops have a lot of exposure in terms of infrastructure and can’t afford unbilled usage.

General meter deployment began in January 2011, with an eight-member team dispatched to swap the old analog units with new digital advanced meters for nearly 49,000 residential customers.

Better outage notification was another area members earmarked for improvement. They would call Talquin’s interactive voice response system to report outages. A lot of time was spent manually calling members back, however, to ask if lights were on. Indeed, communicating with residents in a hurricane prone area was very time-consuming.

Approximately eight months before the first meter rollout, Talquin started a public outreach program by gathering focus groups in each of the counties it serves. Talquin wanted to discuss perceptions and concerns about the new project. Feedback gathered from the focus groups shaped educational information included in monthly newsletters and on the website. Open houses were held in area offices with Talquin personnel and board members available to answer questions and provide live meter demonstrations. Concerns about billing accuracy, health or privacy were addressed, and members were assured that the new AMI infrastructure was the lowest cost solution.

Network infrastructure deployment began in late August 2010 with the installation of antennae and base stations throughout Gadsden, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties. Talquin’s service area is very diverse, ranging from large portions of rural, wooded national forest land to the suburbs of Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee. The service density is moderately high, with an average of 13 to 14 (mainly residential accounts) per mile.

This is where the licensed spectrum proved its worth, as relatively small amounts of equipment can cover large and diverse areas. Ten antennae were installed on existing microwave towers and elevated water tanks to create the network canopy in a little over two months by contractor U.S.A. Mobility.

Early Successes, Tests

Meter deployment began shortly after the AMI network was in place in December 2010. Talquin employees were the first to receive meter swaps as an early test of the new system. General deployment began in January 2011 once it became clear that billing reads were accurate and the system operated smoothly. An eight-member team was dispatched to swap the old analog units with new digital advanced meters for nearly 49,000 residential customers (54,000 total meters).

Talquin is testing grid distribution and automation functions using AMI tools with communication and control of down-line devices.

Talquin was impressed with 900 MHz signal range for readings from the towers, seeing polling data that sometimes exceeded the 300-square-mile range from a tower within the original system specifications. The graphs and information coming back from meters presented members with accurate snapshots on usage increases or decreases. Instead of getting one usage figure each month, members could view energy used per hour. They could clearly understand why their bills were higher or lower in a given month.

There was also the convenience factor, as members no longer had to read their own meters. It’s a difficult task for elderly or disabled people to go out into bushes to read meters. The same is true for multiple meter customers at apartment complexes or vacation homes.

Outage notification also was important to the co-op’s membership. Talquin’s new AMI system got an early test from the deadly storms and tornadoes that swept through the southeast in April 2011 and caused numerous outages locally. Although the integration between the Sensus FlexNet AMI and Talquin’s Datavoice International outage management system was still in beta format, the meter outages were displayed on the Datavoice map, a big encouragement. This helped immeasurably in pinpointing or prioritizing dispatches.

Customers were impressed by the technology after an August storm brought a tree down in one area, taking some power lines with it. Meter data immediately indicated the problem to the central office, and a crew was dispatched before phone calls from residents came in. It made members happy to know that Talquin was already en route.

While quick restoration and reliable service are key advantages of the system upgrade, the new meters’ under-glass disconnect deployment capability is also a major benefit. Rough calculations from 2010 show about 8,000 accounts were disconnected. Estimates now show Talquin will eliminate about 160,000 truck rolls per year—or about $40 per meter—once all residential meters are deployed, totaling $640,000 in annual member savings for disconnects alone.

The projected savings in time, overhead and fuel costs for rolling three- to four-ton trucks over a wide area are expected to be considerable over time. This initiative will help Talquin hold costs down and better manage its overhead expenses.

Not Stopping with Meters

Talquin should complete its advanced meter roll out by press time for this article. Additionally, it’s implementing a customer interface with billing and usage data views. The interface will be limited, at first, but will expand in the coming years as time-of-use rates and pre-pay billing options are introduced.

Talquin is also planning to gain additional capabilities from its AMI investment by testing grid distribution and automation functions using tools on the same network infrastructure, another potentially high-value opportunity. These tools can allow communication and control of down-line devices such as reclosers, regulators, capacitor banks or fault indicators.

It’s clear that Talquin’s investment in an AMI system based on licensed spectrum was the right move; it allowed the organization to address immediate needs with high flexibility, low costs and fewer disruptions. The upgrades were a long time coming, and careful smart grid considerations helped Talquin lay a foundation to serve customers for the next 70 years.

Jeremy Nelms is Talquin Electric Cooperative’s design and systems engineer. Talquin Electric Cooperative is located in Quincy, Fla.

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