[Ed Finamore][March, 29 2007]A growing debate exists in the U.S. over the need for, and timing of, meter data management systems used to manage the large volumes of meter data generated from advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems. While some utilities are rushing to implement AMI, others are thinking first about the need for an application to collect, store and process the data for billing and other uses.

A utility manager recently called me with a question that’s being asked much more frequently these days: “We’re planning to implement AMI soon and are concerned about managing the data. What do you suggest we do to handle all of that data?”

I responded by first asking three basic questions:

  1. Will you be implementing more than one AMI technology solution?
  2. Are you planning to implement demand response and time-of-use rates? and
  3. Will you be integrating your AMI system with other applications such as outage management, enterprise asset management and distribution planning?  

Upon hearing yes to each of these questions, I replied by saying, “my friend, you need a meter data management system.”

Increasingly, utilities have come to realize that generating and collecting AMI data is only half the battle. Managing large quantities of interval data and incoming alarms for delivery to several different systems and applications in a seamless manner has become a significant challenge. Many utilities involved in AMI projects now believe that support for time differentiated rates, outage and demand response systems, and an ability to provide these applications with clean, reliable meter data, are best achieved through use of a meter data management (MDM) system.  

In addition to cleaning, parsing and exporting data to other systems, MDM systems serve as a repository for large volumes of historical data used for network monitoring, load research and other purposes. MDM systems also perform validating, estimating and editing (VEE) functions to ensure that data is clean and bills are accurately rendered.  

TIMING OF MDM IMPLEMENTATION

As MDM systems continue to gain more prominence, a difference of opinion has emerged among industry experts concerning the preferred timing and installation sequence for MDM implementation. The MDM system’s role as central meter data repository places it at the core of the AMI installation process, yet many applications requiring MDM-supplied source data are implemented in the later stages of AMI deployment.  

I advised my utility friend that important benefits can be derived from implementing MDM at the front end of an AMI project, and can actually produce implementation savings down the line as meter installations ramp up and customer/meter data synchronization becomes more critical and problematic. As the volume of AMI-related meter change-outs increases, timely synchronization of meter changes with customer account data becomes essential to help a utility avoid large numbers of billing system rejections caused by incorrect meter assignments. MDM will therefore help to minimize the number of incorrect and estimated bills that result from the change out process. And meter reader routing changes can be accomplished more efficiently by utility staff through timely installation updates as growing numbers of utility meters become AMI ready and are then removed from the manual meter reading routes.

MULTI-PHASE IMPLEMENTATION PROCESS

Using a flexible design and implementation model, I generally recommend that utilities should take a phased approach to MDM implementation. Phase I implementation should target a limited set of functional requirements that include the initial installation of the MDM software and operating platform, establish connectivity with current mission critical systems that require meter data, build internal familiarity with the system design logic and prepare critical systems for AMI implementation.   

Once the initial phase I implementation has been completed and AMI deployment is underway, a utility can proceed with phase II – after it has reached a certain comfort level that initial AMI device installations are being read properly and data is being stored and transmitted to destination processes in a reliable manner. In many cases, utilities have already installed pilot AMI networks or are reading advanced meters through dial-up systems and MV-90. These situations provide good opportunities for utilities to test MDM interfaces using operational AMI data and to validate new MDM functionality against existing processes before new data streams are brought on line. Then, as new AMI technologies are deployed, a suitable test environment will already exist, and overall MDM performance can be monitored as the number of AMI applications and associated data volume increases.

For optimum performance of AMI-supported applications such as tamper or leak detection and processing of on demand and off cycle reads, utilities should integrate MDM with utility functions carried out in CIS, billing and other systems such as load control. In the later stages of AMI deployment, utilities can begin to more fully integrate their MDM with other systems such as outage management and GIS, so that information provided through AMI can be used to improve outage response and manage utility assets. More sophisticated applications such as enterprise resource planning and distribution automation can eventually be supported with MDM stored data to address specific utility operational metrics and equipment life cycle planning functions.

MDM ADDS SIGNIFICANT VALUE AT MODEST INCREMENTAL COST

In the larger scheme of things, MDM cost should remain a relatively minor cost of AMI implementation. By some estimates, MDM adds little marginal implementation cost when installed in connection with an AMI project. When one considers that MDM functions can streamline the handling of meter change data and produce significant installation savings through reduced data processing errors and fewer repeat site visits, it is apparent that the additional cost of MDM can be partially offset by even a modest reduction in AMI installation costs.  

Analysis of three large project estimates developed by consulting firm Gestalt LLC for AMI installation shows that average MDM cost for these projects is predicted at a relatively modest 6% of total project expenditures. AMI hardware continues to be the largest expenditure category, while MDM software is estimated to average less than 8% of the cost of the AMI hardware and network communications. For this added cost, a utility receives important long term implementation and operational assistance, and full life cycle support for its time-of-use rates, billing data validation functions, demand response programs, asset management and outage response systems. When analysed from this viewpoint, MDM becomes the enabling system that helps utilities capture the full potential of the benefits presented in their business case.

Ed Finamore will be chairing the 'Doing it: MDM and analytics' track at Metering, Billing/CIS America from May 7-11, 2007 in San Antonio, TX, U.S.A.