Pulses and Minuses Smart Meters Communicate and Complicate Utilities’ Lives
AMI is here to stay FYI. Without context sometimes it’s TMI and certainly no LOL matter for the utilities trying to make sense of it.
Nearly half of the world’s utilities have rolled out smart meters to their customers, promising greater ability to craft tailor-made energy use solutions, save money via efficiencies and plug the once analog and basic HVAC and appliance worlds into the digital array of the Internet of Things. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is linking utilities and their customers to a real-time data revolution.
The future is wide open, but this wide-eyed optimism doesn’t really convey the stone-cold complexities that AMI systems pose for their owners. No matter how advanced things are they still malfunction or they (rarely) might be calibrated just a click or two off. Sometimes they simply cost more to operate than expected.
Utilities must deal with it all. How do utilities and their AMI vendors best go about maintaining and operating their systems once they are installed and in long-term operation?
“Yes, it can be done better,” said David Kreiss, managing director for San Diego-based AMI Operations Consulting LLC. “Most utilities do not have a centralized AMI operations center staffed with folks that maintain high levels of reliability. Without the center security risks are higher and addressing non-responding meters is much slower.”
Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other: Pros and Cons of AMI
• Eliminating manual meter reading
• Better system monitoring
• Reducing peak usage
• Real-time data
• Delaying or cutting need for new generation
• Managing appliances
• Potentially negative customer response
• Challenge to manage and store all that data
• Cybersecurity issues
• Long-term financial and maintenance commitment
• Lack of software integration across business units
• Potential inaccuracy
Global penetration of smart meters is expected to be 800 million installations by 2020 and could approach or exceed 1 billion within the next 10 years. Truthfully, smart meter technology has been around since the 1970s in the form of automatic meter reading (AMR) and shifting to AMI.
Ken Polarek, marketing director with global power management firm Eaton, noted that the large saturation of programmable logic control AMR systems are now being replaced by AMI. The latest and greatest smart meters pulsate with a number of potential benefits in addition to billing and meter reading savings. For example, Polarek said, AMI systems are enabling integrated volt/VAR management, feeder reconfiguration, transformer loading analysis and targeted demand response.
“Today’s AMI systems include better radio sensitivity, higher power to provide coverage to less densely populated areas, continued increased data throughput for higher densely populated areas and distribution automation applications,” he said.
The pluses from AMI rollouts are universally championed by both utilities and vendors. The challenges also are multi-faceted, considering the need to manage the smart meter lifecycle. Keeping track of and coordinating so many moving parts-including meters, the communication networks, routers and collectors, data collection engines and a data management system-necessitates the need for utilities to develop technology/service roadmaps for those networks.
“More Complex Than Expected”
French consulting firm Capgemini released a report two years ago studying the various cost factors of AMI rollout, maintenance and operations. It found several unique components to those challenges, such as exceptions and error handling, logistics, meter migration and scarcity of skilled resources (Figure 1).
“The quality of the workforce, level of automation and the strength of the business processes are all important elements that will contribute to the overall total cost of ownership of the smart meter network,” Nilabja Guha, lead solution architect for smart grid solutions for Capgemini Utilities Practice in North America, said.
“The identification and analysis of AMI meter and communications issues are more complex than expected,” Guha’s colleague Peter Jansen, senior delivery executive for Capgemini, added. “Operating and analysis tools beyond those supplied by the metering system vendor are needed. These tools include GIS (geographic information system), WMS (work management system) and robust analytical applications. Utilities have found that the meter data alone is not sufficient and must be correlated and processed with a broad array of disparate data sources to provide actionable information.”