The station chimney overlooks St. Peter Port
Guernsey Electricity is the sole provider of electrical energy to the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, and has been providing electricity to the island’s homes and businesses for over 100 years.
The method of reading a customer’s meter had not changed over the years, however, and the Guernsey Electricity service standard for all our customers was “…..to obtain an actual meter reading from all customers at least once a year.” The usual meter reading routines called for a full complement of six staff to allow for two readings to be taken throughout a typical year. Nonetheless our success rate was poor – in the 2002/2003 financial year only 58% of attempted reads were successful. One of our greatest challenges was accessibility; most of the metering equipment installed in our customers’ premises is either in a cupboard under the stairs or somewhere that is locked and difficult to gain access to.
Sunset over the power station
Guernsey has a thriving economic environment and most people in a household are working, so it’s also difficult to gain access to the properties. The island is popular with tourists, and the high vehicle traffic volume in the St Peter Port area makes parking a problem for staff who need to keep appointments for final readings, reconnections and disconnections etc.
As a result of these difficulties a considerable number of estimated readings had to be processed and billed – 60,570 in the financial year 2002/2003. The costs of processing these accounts, and the cost of postage, were considerable. Sometimes we had to estimate accounts based on previously estimated readings and, particularly after a heavy winter, the actual amount billed was often uncomfortably high. This involved technical investigations when the second ‘actual’ read of the year was billed.
Then we had a number of different types of meter installed on the electricity distribution system, to meet all the differing tariff options. In addition, in order to switch a customer’s tariff at certain times of the day either a tariff switching device (cyclocontrol) unit needed to be installed adjacent to the meter, or a different model of meter had to be installed or programmed in the meter test laboratory at Guernsey Electricity offices.
CUSTOMER SERVICE A PRIORITY
The utility was commercialised in 2002 and became a limited company. Just prior to this the senior management team endorsed the concept of service provision to the customer base, and a comprehensive range of service standards was introduced. Ian Watson, managing director, says: “Providing excellent service to our customers can only be of benefit to all involved; our senior managers are always looking at ways to improve service and reliability.”
To complement this service culture, and to avoid the problems mentioned above, Guernsey Electricity has been trialling automated meter reading (AMR) technology since 2002. The company now plans to replace all the remaining traditional metering equipment, and to become the world’s first power company to switch to a fully integrated automated system. Once this is complete, access to customer premises to read meters or carry out many other routine operations will no longer be required. Estimated accounts will become a thing of the past, and Guernsey Electricity will also be able to trace and repair faults more quickly.
We decided that any installed metering system should have the following attributes:
• Accurately read energy meters remotely on a daily basis.
• Select specific meters for half-hour profiling.
• Meters should be configurable for up to 100 differing tariff structures.
• Have a controlled integral meter 100 Ampere contactor for control of electric heating systems.
• Be able to remotely disconnect/reconnect customers.
• Be able to report customer outages to the GEMINI system.
We started the trials by installing about 200 AMR meters, supplied by AMPY Metering Ltd., on the distribution network. The system proposed by AMPY was the Mainstalk system, which comprises a single generic energy meter installed in a customer’s premises. This single meter can be programmed for any combination of tariff and switching options. This meant that having numbers of different types of meter and load control receivers was unnecessary – one meter delivers all tariff requirements.
The meter communicates over the electricity supply cable to a customer’s property using superimposed packets of data information at slow speed (approximately 50 baud) using CENELEC standard data transfer for ensuring a secure exchange of information to a local controller (LC) located at the local electricity substation. This controller can communicate with up to 512 energy meters installed in its supply area. The method of communication to the Guernsey Electricity central regional controller system is by either a conventional telephone line installation (PSTN) or by GSM mobile connection. Energy meter readings are stored in the meter and are constantly being passed to the local controller over the electricity supply system. Once every few days the meter readings are retrieved by the regional controller and sent back to Guernsey Electricity offices.
The information that was being retrieved from the meter was also very useful for plotting daily load profiles of specific groups of customers and/or areas.
The power station engine
The only drawback was that a standalone computer system recording this information wasn’t as secure as we would have liked; nor was it integrated so that all the departments in the company that needed the information could see and process it.
It was decided to build on the system to make it fully integrated with the Guernsey Electricity Graphical Information systems (GIS) which contained the cables and networks for the island, the mainframe customer database system, and billing systems as a whole. A project team of 26 staff was put together from different skills bases within Guernsey Electricity, and we worked closely with our GIS supplier Imass Ltd. and AMPY to produce the completed system.
Meters being tested before installation
The integration of all the systems was written inhouse using SQL server 2000 and through the use of stored procedures between the systems. The integrated system was called GEMINI “Guernsey Electricity Metering Information Network Integrated”. The system was originally created on an entirely separate test system, and all of our mainframe systems have mirrored systems that can trial new concepts and processes. By the time GEMINI had been written and was functioning in a test environment we had nearly 800 customers on the stand-alone system. The GEMINI system was based on raided array hard drives located in two strategically different locations for business continuity reasons, and was incorporated into our backup and archiving routines.
Seeing your metering assets on an overlay of the distribution network is extremely useful in fault diagnosis and asset management. We went live in June 2004 after completing our tests, and we now have over 2500 customers connected to AMR technology, primarily in St Peter Port. It’s going very well.
We intend to install the equipment over the entire island in a four to five year roll-out period. One of the primary drivers for this is to maintain our meter recertification programme, which will allow us to manage our processes efficiently.
Guernsey Electricity’s innovative automated metering project won the company “The Best AMR Initiative in Europe Award” from the Energy Planning Network earlier this year. Entries were received from Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe, USA, South America and Canada. A panel of 12 international judges, comprising representatives of major utility companies from all over the world, scored the entries on innovation, customer benefits, project management, and quality.
We were very proud to have won the award. It puts the Island of Guernsey clearly on the map in a technological sense, and it’s great for the island. We feel that this technology benefits customers considerably, and is clearly the right way forward. Why should you pay an estimated bill when there’s a technology out there that’s reasonably priced and that enables you to have accurate bills and information about your energy consumption?
We received the award in Las Vegas, USA in April this year and we gave a presentation of our system to the metering world in front of an international audience. It was received extremely well, and I think everybody was particularly impressed with what we’ve achieved here. It dovetails perfectly well into the service culture that we have adopted and all the users think it’s ideal for them. I dedicate this great award to the 26 strong AMR team that made this happen, even though they continued carrying out their own everyday work as well!
The company has other plans for the future. We are always looking at innovative technology and assessing whether it will be of benefit to customers. We are presently investigating marine current turbine technology, where we’ll be harnessing energy from the ocean, and we’ve invested considerably in that of late.
Guernsey Electricity has also honed all aspects of its communication strategy, and our staff are briefed quickly about key business decisions at all levels. There aren’t many companies where you find that people on the shop floor know about key management decisions being made on a day-to-day basis. We feel we’ve got a great communication strategy within the company, and that helps to bring everybody on board. We empower our staff and we have a very open culture; I believe this has been one of the major keys to our success.