By Andrew Thorington

Conventional electromechanical meters served as the cash register within the Caribbean electric utilities for most of their history. However, more recently, the implementation of automatic meter reading and advanced metering (AMR/AMI) systems has been and continues to be on the rise in the Caribbean region, especially among the 33 electric utility members of CARILEC (The Association of Caribbean Electric Utilities).

The basis for this increase has been the pursuit of added value in the areas of customer service, efficiency, accuracy and of course finance.

The main value drivers of customer service that foster the implementation of such systems are reliable readings, reduced estimated reads and reduced billing inquiries. The efficiency value drivers comprise more meter reads per day, elimination of high cost and hazardous-to-read meters, reduced check readings and improved response time for off-cycle readings. The financial value drivers include increase cash flow, reduced operational expenses and reduction in the read-to-bill window. Some utilities have also benefited from reduced losses, reduced cost for meter reading and an increase in the monthly kWh billed.

Most if not all of the utilities in the Caribbean region are keen on the use of AMR/AMI systems. However, they are at different stages of the evaluation and implementation process. Some are in the feasibility study phase and others are in the test/pilot phase, while others have completed island-wide deployment. For example, Bahamas Electricity Corporation (Nassau) and Caribbean Electric Utilities Company Ltd (CUC, Grand Cayman) have completed islandwide mobile deployments. Bahamas has over 100,000 AMR/AMI meters deployed while CUC has all of its single-phase customers on AMR/AMI meters. PREPA (Puerto Rico) has implemented a power line carrier solution in most parts of the island while T&TEC (Trinidad & Tobago) has almost completed a full deployment of AMI meters to all of its customers. LUCELEC (Saint Lucia) has deployed nearly 12,000 smart meters. DOMLEC (Dominica) is advancing towards a full deployment of AMI, with approximately 3,500 meters installed so far and the full installation of 27,000 expected by the end of 2011.

Utilities that have implemented test/pilot mobile AMR/AMI systems include Bermuda Electric Light Company Ltd, Turks & Caicos Utilities Ltd, Antigua Public Utilities Authority, Grand Bahama Power Corporation, St. Kitts, GRENLEC (Grenada) and the Dominican Republic. The US Virgin Islands have tenders out for island-wide deployment and are under evaluation. Some of the others are expected to follow in similar fashion in the near future.

The utilities from Montserrat (MONLEC), Nevis (NEVLEC), Tortola (BVIEC), St. Maarten (GEBE) and Anguilla (ANGLEC) are all actively reviewing the benefits of AMR/AMI systems and their application on their systems.

The current AMR/AMI technologies being employed include GE or Elster meters with the Itron modules (one-way communication systems) which use either the portable radio handhelds or the drive-by mobile collector. Elster/ OHM International’s Energy Axis 2-way communication system is also being considered and some utilities are in negotiations to enter a pilot/test phase with this system. Utilities that are utilising the Energy Axis 2-way system include LUCELEC, DOMLEC, JPSCO (Jamaica) and Belize Electricity Ltd.

Deployment approaches to AMR/AMI technology varies from island to island and depend upon a number of factors including the utility’s starting point, regulatory situation, long term vision, topography of island, type of electricity supply, vendor support and reliability, etc. For example, in Aruba because of the type of electricity supply that exists most of the residential homes are connected with a 3-phase supply. Therefore, the cost of replacement AMR 3-phase meters for this island is much more expensive compared to the replacement cost in other islands for 1-phase AMR meters.

On a side note, prepayment systems are also being considered to a limited extent in the region. AQUALECTRA (Curacao) and DOMLEC have implemented on a small scale prepaid systems for their residential customers while T&TEC is contemplating the same for transient customers. In Dominica these prepaid systems are very appealing to landlords who rent apartments to tenants. These systems prevent a tenant from leaving an unpaid utility bill when he vacates the premises. Similar to the prepaid mobile telephone market, it is possible that the deployment of prepaid meter systems could increase in the region over time.

The transition to AMR/AMI technology is not without obstacles. Some of the challenges faced in the implementation of these technologies in the Caribbean electric utilities are: the cost of setting up the supporting infrastructure, coordination of meter replacements with the meter reading and billing process, eliminating errors in the data collected in the field, updating the Customer Information System at a rate equal to the replacements of meters in the field, getting the customer buy-in to the AMR/ AMI technology and motivating staff to learn the technology.

While the regulators realise the essential benefits to the consumers of electricity, some issues include the request for pattern approval testing and the placing of a tighter limit on estimated billing.

In closing, as AMR/AMI technologies improve and become more affordable, it is expected that more of the Caribbean electric utilities will advance to the islandwide deployment phase. Those utilities that have already deployed AMR/AMI technology throughout their islands will seek to optimise the same; for example, by integrating their network of smart meters with their outage management system, and leveraging such integration for future endeavours such as in a post disaster restoration verification process. Further updates will be provided as the situation progresses.