Utilities around the world face a changing environment on many fronts, and meter reading is no exception to this trend. Automated Meter Reading (AMR) technologies are revolutionising the industry and affecting everything from operating costs to customer service. Gone (or going soon) are the days of manual meter reads, and with them will go the complexities of estimated reads/bills and having the customer read his own meter.
One obstacle to this meter reading revolution are those ‘end-of-the-line’, remote, hard-to-reach locations which the mass market AMR technologies still have difficulty in penetrating. This is where satellite meter reading comes into play.
Early in the 1970s, companies began sending satellite communication networks into orbit. Today they provide reliable, cost-effective data communications services to customers around the world. And the uses of the technology are so diverse that the satellites are used to track, monitor and control both mobile and fixed assets, including trucks, containers, marine vessels, locomotives, heavy machinery, pipelines, oil wells, utility meters and storage tanks anywhere in the world.
One prominent satellite network has a constellation of over 30 low-earth orbit satellites, and a client base as diverse as Caterpillar, General Electric, Volvo and the U.S. Coast Guard. Due to the extensive coverage provided by the satellite network and global ground infrastructure, this solution has attracted the
interest of many North American electric utilities for their remote meter needs.
Today, AMR via satellite is a proven solution that supplies the utility with downloadable meter data that reduces costs and strengthens customer service in those inaccessible locations. With satellite meter reading, the utility can now meter its most remote locations and hard-to-reach meters, monitor substations, and gauge electricity supply and demand for an array of core business applications. And for those resource-constrained utilities that are looking to adopt satellite technology without having to incur significant infrastructure costs, there are service bureau options available that make the technology accessible today.
The unique needs of one investor-owned electric utility (IOU) serving the northern plains of the US resulted from substations that were located in hard-to-reach and very remote locations in its service territory. Despite the challenging terrain, this particular IOU desired a timely and efficient way to provide daily load data from the substation’s meters. The data, used for system optimisation, load forecasting and determining system load, was in some instances taking up to six weeks to be delivered. This time delay was especially problematic because the IOU’s independent system operator required daily system reports to forecast the next day’s total load.
The IOU narrowed down the field of solutions based on the remote nature of its substations. Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) was dismissed due to high monthly service charges and the fact that it was prone to lightning damage. The local cellular providers, anticipating the obsolescence of the service, discouraged the utility from pursuing analog cellular communication. Digital cellular service, that normally might have been a good option, was not in this case because the network footprint in the company’s service area was very small. Satellite service proved to be the option that provided the most reach at the least cost.
The IOU initially installed satellite kits at over 160 substations in order to remotely collect interval data from its meters, without having to replace the existing utility meter. Remote installation of a satellite kit is similar to a digital cellular phone installation. Only a whip or similar antenna needs to be mounted outside, and no cumbersome satellite dish is involved. The antenna is mounted up to 100 feet away from the satellite kit, which provides flexibility when trying to gain an ‘eye to the sky’ in some installations (for example narrow canyons, heavily wooded-mountaintops, and downtown high-rise buildings).
Once the satellite kit installations were complete, the utility began receiving data from its distribution substation metering sites back to the central MV-90 system. Using an FTP link right to the system, the data push was automatic. The satellite kit installations are normally performed by the utility’s own personnel, and there is reliable confirmation of a successful installation and satellite link while the installer is in the field.
The overall results for the subject IOU have been positive. There has been a noticeable impact on efficiency and productivity, especially the elimination of the six-week delay in determining system load data. With reliable 15-minute interval data being delivered on a daily basis, the IOU is now able to analyse its system load efficiently and accurately, and deliver timely data to the region’s independent system operator (ISO). An added benefit discovered by the utility was that its engineers could use the satellite data to monitor its substation transformers. This allows the utility to ensure that its transformers are properly loaded, thus reducing costly repairs and keeping customers out of the dark.
With the daily delivery of 15-minute data packets (a total of 96 reads per day delivered each morning) the utility does not need to communicate with its recorders directly or on-demand. The staff feels that the increased AMR reliability offered through the satellite service continues to help the IOU focus on its core business and become a more efficient power company.
Many other investor-owned utilities, municipalities and co-operatives have explored a variety of AMR technologies in their efforts to optimise processes with a best-fit solution, and there are numerous technologies available. Existing deployments have occurred across a wide chasm, contingent on a variety of factors. According to industry research, some companies register as little as one half of one percent AMR coverage, and companies that are more aggressive can reach as much as 85 percent of the customer base with the technology. Accuracy, reliability and data security always rank high on the list of criteria for choosing AMR technology, and rightfully so. However, differentiating features may be hard to distinguish. Choosing an AMR technology is about weighing options and measuring unique needs and unique customers against available solutions.
INVESTING IN TECHNOLOGY
Choosing a solution becomes the corporate equivalent of investing personally in a quality digital camera or a new cell phone. With prices dropping and features rising, you do not know where or when it is best to jump in. Common sense says that if you wait until you find a technology that is not going to be obsolete, you are in for a long wait.
I don’t know about you readers, but my personal computer purchase in the early 80s could never have happened had I waited for technological advances to slow! AMR purchasers are no different – they want a reasonably affordable, easy-to-grow-with technology that will not need to be replaced anytime soon.
Another emerging trend is that more buyers are asking about greater common platforms or common standards across today’s discordant metering systems and communication devices. As productivity and the growing use of information and communication technology are further emphasised, it is clear that electric utilities desire more open architecture and compatibility over time.
AMR manufacturers are certain to continue innovating and bringing new business value to the table, and satellite technology is just one example of that. While the future of AMR technology may be difficult to predict, it continues to hold great promise for higher productivity, reduced costs, increased performance, and enhanced profits.
Every utility is looking to enhance its relationship with customers. Through energy measurement, analysis and control, AMR solutions offer utilities the ability to improve that customer relationship. Quantifiable economic results derived from AMR solutions at or near the point of energy consumption allow utilities to satisfy regulatory, corporate and institutional requirements. It is also a feasible option to help utilities and customers identify and solve energy usage problems. Utilities can update demand response programmes to make them more responsive to customer requests, and validate and market customer-facing energy conservation programmes.
In the final outcome, AMR technology will help electric utilities continue to supply their consumers with reliable electricity and a better way to manage it more efficiently. Satellite allows the meter reading revolution supported by AMR technology to reach all customers, even those in the hardest-to-reach locations. And there are other applications for satellite meter reading beyond reaching the ‘end-ofthe-line’ customer that are being considered by some North American utilities, such as congested downtown areas, meter routes in dangerous areas, and load research samples.