Making AMI Work for a Small Utility in Kings Mountain, North Carolina

By Susan Ryba

This article appears in the July-August 2015 issue of Public Power magazine.

A rural community in North Carolina, the City of Kings Mountain has owned and operated its own utility system for over 100 years and currently serves approximately 6,000 electric, natural gas and water/sewer customers. A former textile area on the North/South Carolina border, the City of Kings Mountain has developed a successful formula that combines technology and a progressive outlook to attract a mix of new industry.

The City’s electric, water and natural gas services are monitored and managed utilizing an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system for assistance. The City’s leadership determined that the rollout of these technologies would be open and transparent to make sure the community not only accepted the new technology, but also welcomed it.

“About four years ago, the City of Kings Mountain evaluated its then manual meter reading system. With one supervisor and three meter readers, the data collection was accurate with a very low error rate. However, by reading each meter only once a month, the utility did not have sufficient usage data on hand to respond to high bill complaints or questions from customers in a manner that was acceptable to the City” says City Manager, Marilyn Sellers.

“To provide City staff and customers with more useful consumption data, as well as to improve cash flow for the utility, we evaluated the advanced metering systems suitable for utilities of our size,” said Holly Black, Specialist Engineering & Compliance. “We conferred with our fellow members of ElectriCities of North Carolina and the American Public Power Association. We visited several AMI installations across the southeast. Ultimately, we selected the AMI solution from the Leidos Engineering/Elster Team as best meeting our requirements for one vendor being able to provide metering for all of our utility services within our budget parameters.”

Kings Mountain uses Smart Grid as a Service, a fully hosted and managed solution provided by Leidos that is built on the Elster EnergyAxis AMI system.

After working through a detailed pilot project, Kings Mountain fully deployed AMI for the electric and natural gas meters by January 2015. Full deployment of the advanced water meters will take several more months. “We are extremely excited as to what the end result will bring for us” says Jean Wyte, the Billing Director for the City.

According to the City, with the deployment of Leidos’ Smart Grid as a Service and the Elster AMI system, the staff of the Kings Mountain Energy and Water Department is working more efficiently and finding it much easier to answer questions from customers. According to the City Manager, “Our customer service representatives can call up on the utility web portal very detailed data covering 13 months of usage, correlated with weather data for each day. We can help customers understand what was happening at certain times of the month to drive up their charges, which was particularly valuable during this past winter when temperatures were unusually low.”

In addition to the web portal for utility personnel, the City of Kings Mountain maintains a web-based “Smart Meter Portal,” through which customers may log in to view their account history and usage data.

According to Dennis Wells, Water Resources Director; “With data being collected at 15-minute intervals 24/7, we are now able to engage in a very positive dialog with our residential and commercial customers. For example, along with explaining days of higher cost usage, we can look at the data and detect when water lines may be leaking or heat pumps short cycling. Ultimately, we are able to suggest solutions for helping our customers better manage their energy costs.”

The Kings Mountain Energy Department maintains a very robust SCADA system. The SCADA system coupled with the data from the AMI system enable the utility to better pinpoint trouble spots and improve its outage management capabilities.

As a region that has lost textile manufacturing, the City of Kings Mountain views advanced technology deployments as critical to its economic development activities. For example, when the City decided to connect all of its facilities—including electric substations, natural gas regulatory stations, and sewer pumps—with a fiber optic loop for data communications, the City decided to lease its unused dark fiber to local businesses at very competitive rates, says (Mayor) Rick Murphrey.

“Our community is very fortunate to be led by a city manager, mayor and city council members who share an understanding about the valuable potential of new technologies,” said Nick Hendricks, Energy Services Director. “As a case in point, our leadership believed that by deploying the AMI system, the Energy Department would be enhancing our mission to provide safe and reliable services at the lowest cost possible using sound economic reasoning while protecting environmental resources.”

According to Hendricks, the City of Kings Mountain had three primary goals for the AMI system:

1. Pay for itself within four years
2. No rate increase to pay for the system
3. No reduction in personnel

“We are on track to achieve all three of these goals.”

Susan Ryba is a Marketing Consultant for Hometown Connections, the utility services subsidiary of APPA and a marketing affiliate of Elster Solutions.

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