[Andrew Mackie][December, 19 2007]The project’s history and progress to date were outlined. To summarize progress – the meter functionality specification has been published, as has the communication technology trials report, but the customer response trials have stalled. So will the industry score the goal of successfully rolling out a world-leading interval meter infrastructure by 2012? The speakers at the forum appeared confident, but, as is to be expected with a new application of this size and complexity, progress so far has not extinguished all the concerns.

Let’s take the communication system trials first. At the forum the AMI Technology Trials Report was released and is now available on the DPI website (see also www.metering.com/node/11311). Although it would have been useful to have an objective comparison of the performance and likely costs of the systems trialled, the wording of the published report is very careful to protect the interests of the vendors involved. If system A had a hopelessly low data rate and system B’s signal was intermittently obliterated by noise and system C was ludicrously expensive to implement, and none of the others really came up to scratch, it would be highly unlikely to appear in the report in plain English. I’m not suggesting that this was necessarily the case, just that, due to the guarded nature of the report, we can’t be sure that it wasn’t the case. In the report’s conclusions the authors resort to the same cautious, double negative way of summing up: “…the TWG [Trials Working Group] and the trialling participants have not indicated that the prescribed functionality, performance and service levels would be unachievable”. This language hardly inspires confidence, but the vendors are, apparently, committed to the project and to further development of their technologies. It would appear more work on the communications systems is required before the rollout can start.

To take over the government’s role in helping the industry plan and manage the project, a consultancy firm, Marchment Hill, has been appointed. At the stakeholder forum, the project officer, Stephen Thomson, gave a very comprehensive description of his plans for the AMI program. Detailed scheduling of a project that probably includes a significant R&D element is difficult. The nature of this new project is that it has never been done before elsewhere and so unpredictable problems will be encountered. The distribution businesses are keenly aware of this and the forum was also addressed by Peter Bryant, general manager of AMI services at CitiPower/Powercor. He outlined his company’s involvement in the technology trials. In describing the communication technologies, he alluded to perhaps less than perfect performance in using the phrase “these technologies are not yet at their full maturity”. Considering many are decades old, one would hope that they don’t take much longer to mature into useable systems and the vendor technology road maps that were mentioned include some six lane highways.
What about the customers who will ultimately pay for this new infrastructure? There has been a noticeable lack of mention of the project in the local media; I have yet to meet anyone outside the industry who appears to know anything about the big changes afoot. A recent announcement of an average 17 percent hike in retail electricity prices from January 1 made headline news, but demand management using interval metering will result in much greater price increases for critical peak electricity. One would have thought customer reaction is a vital issue. However, the promised customer response trials seem to have entirely collapsed, and, we were told at the forum, are now “in abeyance”. No clear explanation was delivered, but an impression was given that there had been some sort of disagreement with the retailers involved. It seems that not everybody’s hearts were in the customer response trials.

Another worrisome area is the in-home display (IHD). To succeed in its primary aim of smoothing demand, interval metering must be accompanied by a cost effective and practical way of informing the customer as the price changes. The responsibility for meter rollout has been firmly placed in the distribution businesses’ hands but the provision of IHDs has, sensibly, been left to the market. The minimum AMI functionality specification (also available on the DPI Energy/smart meters website) does nail down a few things though. One is that the meter will provide information to an in-home display via a ZigBee™ radio link and that the distribution businesses will be able to send one message a day for the display via the AMI communication system. At the forum, a local electronics manufacturing company talked about their IHD solution and even brought along a prototype. It had a big color touch-sensitive screen which, we were told, would be capable of displaying pictorial advertizements and summoning help from emergency services – all via the meter communication system!

To end on a positive and practical note, the functionality and service level specifications give a clear set of goal posts. The distribution businesses have possession of the ball, they have an agreed timetable to work to, and they have the support of the meter and communication system vendors. All involved are confident that the effort will pay off. To stick with the “Beautiful Game” analogy, we look forward to seeing a world-beating interval metering “Golden Goal” – the winning goal scored at the last minute – in 2012.