High value features of automated meter reading (AMR) installations are emerging as the killer applications of AMR deployments. They can make significant differences to utility operations, improving customer service and customer satisfaction, while driving increased benefits to AMR business cases.

AMR business cases often include both traditional and non-traditional benefits, categorised into operational savings, supply side savings, and new revenue opportunities. Benefits typically included in today’s utility business cases are found in Table 1. Note that many of them require a fixed network as opposed to a drive-by approach to unlock their full value.

Operational Savings

OUTAGE MANAGEMENT

Outage management consists of four interrelated subsystems:
1. Outage detection
2. Outage extent mapping
3. Outage restoration monitoring
4. Momentary interruption monitoring.

To be effective, outage management needs to be tightly integrated with other utility systems such as customer information systems (CIS), traditional utility outage management systems (OMS), graphical information systems (GIS), and utility work management systems (WMS). The integration must provide for highly automated operation, with little operator intervention, running in real time, and with appropriate filtering of data exchanged.

Outage detection should run constantly in the background in order to detect outages in near-real time. A good detection system should be able to detect feeder and line-section outages in five minutes or less, and transformer or individual customer outages in ten minutes or less. Careful placement of strategically located meters is essential in meeting these goals.

Outage extent mapping, once triggered, is used to determine the exact extent of each outage. This module must know the distribution connectivity of the distribution network and also know appropriate rules for escalation of trouble calls. The mapping module can be triggered by the AMR outage detection sub-system, the utility’s existing OMS, voice response unit (VRU), or other related systems. This module should be smart enough to separate individual outages in the same geographic vicinity into separate outages as opposed to rolling them up into a single, larger outage.

Outage restoration monitoring works very closely with outage extent mapping. Monitoring runs in near-real time to evaluate the progress of restoration activity. The primary benefit of restoration monitoring is automated and positive verification that all customers have been restored before the restoration crews leave the area and before the trouble ticket is closed out. This is needed to eliminate the ‘straggler’ customers who are sometimes overlooked during the initial restoration, and who call back hours later.

Restoration monitoring provides true proactive customer service. It eliminates the need to make follow-up phone calls and is a tremendous boon when dealing with major storms. It is also particularly useful when customers are not home to verify successful restoration. This module can provide excellent data to feed a utility’s system for capturing and reporting reliability indices (SAIDI, SAIFI1, etc.)

Momentary interruption monitoring works closely with outage detection by monitoring momentary interruption (blink) counters in each meter. This can be in near-real time or on a historical basis, feeding the resulting tickets into utility OMS or WMS systems. The primary benefit of monitoring is the identification and elimination of the blinking light situation, which is very annoying to customers.

Individual momentary counts can be aggregated to isolate specific problem areas. Troubleshooting can be stepped up to be as frequent as necessary to isolate when the problem is occurring. Momentary problems can be eliminated before they become permanent outages, thereby improving outage-based reliability indicators. Significant OM operational savings can be found in several areas, as noted in Table 2.

POWER QUALITY

Power quality monitoring is very closely related to outage management, and when implemented correctly can make a tremendous impact on customer satisfaction. In addition to outage detection and monitoring of momentary interruptions, power quality (PQ) applications can monitor high or low voltage, sags, swells, voltage imbalance, excessive harmonics, power factor, and other advanced quantities. Operational savings accrue from the remote detection of PQ problems and the avoidance of investigation tickets at $25 to $150 per investigation. New revenue opportunities can be found by charging customers $25 to $100 per month for these automated PQ services: digital messages to customers with specific data on their PQ anomalies and the automated generation of trouble tickets, versus requiring the customer to call in. This is especially attractive to customers with facilities unmanned during
nights and at weekends.

OM Operational Savings 

RELIABILITY IMPROVEMENTS

AMR with real time or near-real time communications provides the means to reduce outage duration by speeding up the whole outage detection, investigation, and restoration process. Reduced outage duration improves reliability indices such as SAIFI, CAIDI, ASAI, and others. MAIFI and SAIDI1 are improved with better response and follow-up to momentary problems. Improved reliability indicators save maintenance and restoration costs. Improved reliability indices can bring in big savings with performance-based rates and related regulatory programmes. At a minimum, money hastily thrown into tree trimming and feeder rebuilding can be deferred until really needed.

CARE CENTRE SUPPORT

AMR systems and AMR data provide great assistance in solving customer problems. Ready access to detailed historical usage data and real time information help solve:

• Meter reading and billing issues
• Final reads – move-ins and move-outs
• Power on or off – inside trouble or utility problem
• Voltage Issues – high, low, or flickering voltage.

AMR can often provide daily or hourly data, which is very useful in understanding energy usage patterns. This data is easily posted to the Internet, allowing customer self-service. The data also allows care centre personnel to talk with greater authority when dealing with customer issues. Operational savings accrue from a reduction in the number of care centre calls handled, reduction in trips to the field for final or special meter reads, and reduction in crew trips to investigate voltage and outage calls.

ASSET OPTIMISATION

AMR systems provide hourly load profile data on customer consumption patterns. Hourly data provides coincident loading information on utility devices – distribution transformers, line sections (wire and fuses), reclosers, feeders, substation transformers and so on. Knowledge of peak, coincident loading in real time allows:

•Operation of equipment closer to maximum capabilities.
• Reduction in margin of safety – certainty reduces risk.
• Better decision-making during emergencies – field switching.
• Input to VAR management and other power optimisation systems.

Knowledge of historical loading identifies underutilised utility devices (transformers, wire, fuses, etc.) thereby extending their useful life. It also identifies overloaded utility devices that can be upgraded in regular time rather than on an emergency basis; extended outages are averted. It provides valuable input to utility planners in making system improvements, and provides inputs to utility design models used to engineer utility facilities.

Asset optimisation benefits accrue to distribution, transmission, and generation planning groups, which typically spend tens to hundreds of million dollars each year. A slight improvement in how wisely that money is spent translates into big savings, all attributable to good AMR data. These big ticket savings continue well into the future as design models are refined in each iteration of analysis.

CONCLUSIONS

There are many benefits that bring value to AMR business cases. Some are traditional and well understood, but many are non-traditional and are emerging as AMR’s new frontier. A number of these benefits require deployment of fixed networks in order to unlock their full value. The new frontier includes outage management, power quality, reliability improvements, care centre support, and asset optimisation. The new frontier is real, and many utilities are openly discussing their success stories – Pennsylvania Power & Light with outage restoration after Hurricane Isabel, Puget Sound Energy with outage management, Florida Power & Light with power quality monitoring, PECO and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative with most of the benefits mentioned, and Ameren UE with asset optimisation, just to name a few.

The benefits are truly there. Don’t overlook the new frontier just because it requires non-traditional thinking, and because it is sometimes difficult to get the right people on board to support the programme. The new frontier is worth the effort. It will drive significant change in utility operations and improve customer service and customer satisfaction, while at the same time reducing operating expenses. Go for it!

SAIDI - System Average Interruption Duration Index
SAIFI - System Average Interruption Frequency Index
CAIDI - Customer Averge Interruption Duration Index
MAIFI - Momentary Average Interruption Frequency Index
ASAI - Average Service Availability Index