jonathan spencerWith the rapidly growing interest in AMI in North America, it was of little surprise that this topic was to dominate discussions at the 8th Metering, Billing/CIS America, which took place in San Antonio, Texas last week.

In fact, there can now be few, if any, utilities across the U.S. that are not at some stage of development of AMI, and if not in implementation, at least in conception. For the numbers tell it all – reportedly some 60 million endpoints are out for RFPs in the next six quarters.

Nor does the size of the utility matter. While it is the big utilities, such as Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) in California, with endpoints running into the millions, that are making the biggest headlines, the potential for AMI is no less important in the many smaller municipal utilities or cooperatives, with endpoints in the tens of thousands or even thousands. It all comes down to the business case that can be made – and that will be unique for each utility.

Yet at the same time one senses a feeling of uncertainty: Utilities have investment in their existing metering infrastructure, and now are looking at potentially further major investment in new infrastructure. There also are many technological and other decisions to be made: Meters from one supplier or several suppliers? What communications medium should be adopted? How will existing systems integrate with the AMI? And what about the meter data management system that is essential to handle the mass of data that will flow?

These are, of course, complex questions, and increasingly utilities are finding it necessary to draw on the expertise of specialists and to enter into longer term relationships with their suppliers. As delegates to Metering America were to hear such relationships can be mutually rewarding, but they are also a potential minefield – but with the common sense of a contract, a clear relationship between the parties can be established. As consultant Ralph Abbott, president of Plexus Research, commented: “The contract is the principal risk management resource, and it is vital to get it right.”

Many of the AMI pilots are testing different technologies and while many utilities prefer, for obvious reasons, to install a system from a single supplier, the consensus is moving towards interoperability across products and suppliers. Products develop or may be discontinued, and interoperability will allow flexibility in future upgrades or expansion, in ensuring that new products from the same supplier or those from a different supplier can be integrated into a common AMI. The industry is still some way off from this goal but if it does not move voluntarily it will inevitably be forced by the utilities, such as SCE, which has adopted an open standards approach and will be selecting products from multiple vendors.

Looking to the future, the focus is very much on the smart grid and the smart home, which will be enabled by AMI. Just as the smart grid will be technology based, so too must be the smart home. In the case of demand response, for example, peak load generally occurs around the middle of the day when the consumer is outside the home at work and unlikely to be thinking of turning down their air conditioning or other energy saving measures, and this process must occur seamlessly from their perspective.

At the same time the development of the smart home will open the way for utilities to provide new, non traditional, services to their customers, and they should be starting to think of these. As the custodian of the meter, as a key entry point, they have a head start over any competitors – but that advantage could easily be lost as the competition heats up: Indeed, already new companies are reported to be entering this market almost by the day.

At this moment what the utility of the future will look like is unclear. But what we do know is that AMI is going to take us to the utility of the future. And it is also clear that, no matter which section of the industry we are involved in, whether as a utility, vendor or consultant, or like ourselves a publisher and purveyor of information, getting there is going to be both busy and challenging.

As Chris Hickman from Site Controls put it in the closing debate at Metering America: “It’s an incredible time for people involved in the industry.”