For years, the utility industry has grappled with the exciting opportunities presented by automating its residential and light commercial networks. At first, the main question was whether to enable automated meter reading (AMR) and convert to digital meters, or continue with traditional manual reads of electromechanical units. More recently, the advent of advanced metering, which supports many value-added functions beyond meter reading, further complicated the decision-making process.

Over the past year, however, both the technology and market momentum shifted dramatically to advanced metering infrastructures. As a result, advanced metering is no longer an expensive novelty with idle promises of dramatic savings and increased functionality. For utilities keen on upgrading their energy grids’ capabilities and efficiencies, advanced metering offers the best value – and its technology is readily available, affordable, and field-proven.

THE BEGINNINGS OF MAINSTREAM ADVANCED METERING

In 2001, the Italian utility Enel began its landmark advanced metering infrastructure project, laying the foundation for today’s energy service offerings. The deployment of 27 million intelligent meters with bi-directional communication was remarkable not only for its sheer size, but for a feature set that included attributes far beyond simple AMR, such as built-in disconnects and remotely configurable tariff packages. Enel’s move emphasised that the question was no longer whether to simply automate meter reading; instead, it was whether to transform the energy grid from a simple collection of meters and figures to a potent energy services platform, one that could provide numerous value-added services across all operating areas of the utility.

Although Enel faced many challenges in pioneering the first large-scale deployment of advanced metering, the reward was clear: The company saved half a billion Euros per year, yielding a project payback time of merely four years. However, for most utilities that lacked the sheer market-making size of Enel, questions remained: Should they retain the status quo, enable AMR, or take a risk on advanced metering? The latter two options presented further challenges, as there were many technologies to choose from.

‘A GENERATIONAL CHANGE’

Over the past year, several large utilities, including Nuon in The Netherlands, Integral Energy in Australia, and E.ON Sverige and Vattenfall in Sweden, faced these questions when they respectively issued tenders for sizable deployments. In the end, each concluded that the energy automation landscape had been dramatically altered toward intelligent energy service offerings. Advanced metering systems were no longer interesting projects to be relegated to laboratories for seasoning; they now offered the best value on the market with field-proven performance.

 

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For example, E.ON initially sought a simple AMR system, but after evaluating a number of vendors, the company chose an advanced metering system from Echelon’s Networked Energy Services (NES). “The networked metering market has moved from simple to advanced systems,” concluded E.ON project manager Thomas Thorkelsson. “We intend to become leaders in driving that change and in bringing our customers the benefits that only modern systems can offer.” Göran Lundgren, CEO of Vattenfall Distribution, succinctly captured this paradigm shift, noting that, “during the tender process, a generation change in technology took place.” It was no longer a question of justifying the cost premium of an advanced system; instead, these utilities found cost parity between basic and advanced systems, coupled with significant additional benefits that only the advanced systems offered.

A WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON

While Europe and Australia have been on the vanguard of advanced metering deployments, North American utilities have likewise recognised that the benefits offered by this new breed of energy automation are now within reach. Southern California Edison (SCE), one of the largest utilities in the United States with service for more than 13 million people, described a vision where a “new generation of meters can provide SCE additional operational benefits that outweigh any cost increase associated with the enhanced functionality ... resulting in a positive business case for full AMI deployment.” The utility further noted that “due to the rapid evolution of metering and communication systems technology over this same period of time, SCE’s vision is being realised.” SCE expects to begin a deployment soon.

THE MARKET-LEADING SOLUTION

Further clarifying the path for other utilities to follow, Nuon, E.ON, Vattenfall, and Integral independently chose systems based on Echelon’s NES advanced metering platform, in conjunction with one of NES’s development partners (see sidebar). In so doing, these utilities signaled the inception of a new era where a mature advanced metering infrastructure – with predictable costs, known performance, and outstanding results – now offers the best value to any utility interested in dramatically upgrading its network capabilities while simultaneously reducing costs and increasing performance.

BEYOND METERING

While the meter is the most obvious component of an advanced metering system, it’s the entire system - including data concentrators, communications technology, and backend enterprise software – that brings the benefits of advanced metering to bear.

These components work seamlessly to provide a powerful, flexible platform that can be remotely monitored, controlled, and upgraded. Advanced metering networks eliminate tedious and repetitive site visits; the need to stock, manage, and maintain multiple meter types; inflexible customer offerings; and disparate communication networks for automating additional utilities such as water, gas, and steam.

Flexible tariff plans Advanced metering systems let utilities remotely change the tariff plan of individual meters without replacing hardware. This lets a utility install a single meter that inherently supports flatrate, multi-tariff, and prepaid metering, each of which can be enabled and configured remotely. Prepaid metering, where a customer buys energy credits prior to consumption, is an example of the advantages of an advanced metering system.

Long valued by utilities – particularly to handle customers with poor credit – prepay traditionally faced many challenges, including the need to install special meters with energy loading, deduction, and selfdisconnection features. Along with stocking, maintaining, and installing these meters, utilities also had to provide consumers with expensive ancillary infrastructure such as kiosks, cards, and meter keypads so they could buy and load credits into the meters.

Compare this procedure with the ease of providing prepay service though NES’s advanced metering system: Each meter inherently supports prepay operation, and enabling it requires only a remote command – there’s no need for a site visit or meter replacement. Likewise, energy credits can be monitored and replenished remotely, greatly limiting the need for additional hardware.

Multiple utility integration

Unlike the other utilities in this article, Nuon needed to serve gas customers as well as electric. Being able to remotely read gas meters at minimal incremental cost had a huge impact on its advanced metering business case, not only by eliminating redundant site visits but also by improving billing accuracy. Not surprisingly, the NES system that Nuon deployed offers integrated support for both M-Bus and pulse input meters.

This extends the benefits of the deployment across Nuon’s entire business in a low-cost, unified manner without the need for an additional data collection, networking, or enterprise software infrastructure.

Reliable communications

n a bi-directional, information-rich network, it’s critical to have an economical and reliable way to reach meters. Rather than link each meter directly to the enterprise, most systems use data concentrators to aggregate local meter data and minimise wide area network costs. Reliable communications between the concentrator and meter is also critical; the NES system’s automated topology management feature is an example of the level of refinement achieved by contemporary systems in this regard.

The concentrator automatically discovers installed meters at installation, and intelligently assigns proxies to establish multiple communication routes to any given meter. Furthermore, the system can self-heal if the network is disrupted by a topology change or power outage. This level of robustness at the lowest layers of the advanced metering architecture enables reliable, responsive meter networks that can dynamically adapt to changing conditions.

Integrated disconnects

Meters with integrated, remotely manageable disconnects offer a new level of dynamic network intelligence and control. For example, NES meters allow utilities to remotely disable power in vacant buildings and configure maximum power consumption limits within each meter.

The latter enables tiered service offerings, or ‘fair’ load curtailment, which affects only disproportionate users. This means utilities can enforce payment more humanely – reducing the meter’s allowed consumption to a minimal service level, for instance, instead of completely disconnecting service. In a grid emergency, utilities can also efficiently switch meters to a lower power threshold en masse, averting widespread, indiscriminate brownouts during peak demand periods.

Beyond reducing costs in daily operations and offering the above features, advanced metering networks can also communicate with intelligent in-home devices such as thermostats and energy management systems, monitor service quality and grid performance, and offer customers more complete information and improved service. With a plethora of benefits and mature technology, the era of advanced metering is truly here, and the difficult decisions of yesterday are now obvious – to the benefit of both utilities and their customers.