Crystal Ball: More work in utilities' AMI/AMR future

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Many utilities have completed or have very mature smart meter deployments. But as most companies are finally wrapping up this process, they are realizing there is much more to be done.

Utilities are already focusing on the next steps of metering systems.

Technology moves fast and smart metering systems are no exception to the rule. To that end, many of the utility experts gathered at DistribuTECH 2012 discussed ways to revamp aging systems and prepare for the future of advanced metering.

A number of factors are driving the need to advance these systems including regulatory mandates, customer needs, and the desire to be able to collect and crunch increasingly large volumes of data.

Upgrading aging systems

PPL is one utility that is being forced to reshape decade-old infrastructure.

"We've enhanced our customer service, we've improved operations and we continue to push to do more with the meters," said David Glenwright, AMI program manager at PPL Utilities, during a DistribuTECH session.

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Technology moves fast and smart metering systems are no exception to that rule.
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Glenwright noted that age is causing increased failures rates -- specifically with the communication models and base infrastructure. This includes in the substations and with software as well. He emphasized the criticality of fostering stakeholder involvement throughout the upgrade process. PPL meets with various groups, including the state public utility commission, twice a year to talk about progress and future plans.

"Some things you would never, ever consider unless you get their input," Glenwright said, pointing to privacy.

But as all utilities can attest, infrastructure upgrades are not cheap and benefits can often be gradual and hard to pinpoint.

"That contrast of incremental benefit versus incremental costs creates a need for more in-depth analysis of exactly what you're going to get for what you're going to pay," said Jeff Buxton, an executive consultant at Black & Veatch.

PECO is another utility that is relatively experienced with AMR systems, having had its AMR network in place for about 12 years. They have made an on-going point of trying to provide data in a way that is simple for its customers.

Learning from others

Many utilities are fortunate to have AMI systems that are much younger than PPL, giving them the opportunity to learn from those utilities that have already blazed a path. Learning from others is extremely valuable in any industry, but especially in the energy world, where the definition and purpose of smart meters and smart grid is constantly shifting.

PPL's Glenwright shared several major lessons learned, including: the importance of strong stakeholder investment, the need for dedicated resources and staff members to manage project pilots; the need to ensure regulatory priority approval for their projects in order to avoid wasting investments; and the importance of maintaining a disciplined approach and prudent decisionmaking.

Speaking at DistribuTECH, Ron Katzman, Jr., AMI business architect at PECO, summed up the utility's AMR philosophy into three categories: basic data reporting, operational metrics and deeper data analytics. He also offered up best practices that have helped his team scale these metric and analytics challenges within the utility.

This first key is maintaining a solid organizational framework that can deal with many stakeholders with different requests and curiosities. Next, having clear operational objectives and knowing what sources of data are and aren't being measured is critical. Rounding out PECO's best practices is the need to manage both data organization and data quality.

Based on the experiences of a range of utilities, it's clear that no matter where a utility falls along the AMR/AMI lifecycle, the work is not done.