This article appears in the June 2012 issue of Public Power Magazine.
by Susan Ryba
The time had come. Tennessee’s Columbia Power & Water System decided in 2009 to move beyond the manual reading of 47,000 electric and water meters. Contract meter readers often could not access a customer’s private property, leaving too high the percentage of meters that went unread each month. Recording meter data by hand inevitably led to human errors. Customer service representatives could access at most one recorded meter read per account per month, leaving them with very little usage data when customers called to ask questions about their statements. To improve customer service and utility operations, CPWS installed intelligent meters from Elster at every home and business, to work with Elster’s EnergyAxis® advanced metering infrastructure system.
In alliance with Hometown Connections, Elster provides AMI and integrated metering and utilization solutions to public power electric, gas and water utilities. EnergyAxis from Elster is a scalable, two-way, self-healing meter communications system built on a wireless 900 MHz mesh network technology. It supports metering for multiple utilities, in-home energy management tools, and distribution grid monitoring and control devices.
Working with a consultant, CPWS decided the Elster solution made the most financial sense for their utility while covering the functionality they needed. “Although we were open about the metering technology and communications choices, we were very clear about what we wanted our new metering system to do,” said Charles Hunt, Information Technology Manager. “We want to read every meter, every day, automatically. We want to query a meter on demand, to check its status if a problem is reported. We want remote connects and disconnects. We want interval and historical data. We want the ability to analyze customer billing and operational performance. And we want a system we can grow over time. Elster meets all of these requirements, and more.”
Of all the CPWS finalists, Elster’s technology proved to be the most cost-efficient. The communications capacity was also of primary concern to the utility. “The capabilities of Elster’s system far exceeded our expectations,” Hunt said. “We ran a test of 600 electric and water meters for 45 days and held our breath to see if Elster could meet the challenge of covering both our densely populated and rural areas with a single system. We were impressed by the coverage of Elster’s self-healing RF mesh network, through which a meter can detect a broken path and re-route its communication, with no manual intervention in the field or office. We were able to measure the data collection in miles, not feet.”
According to Doug Burgess, Chief Engineer for CPWS, Elster’s AMI system is providing much more information for the engineering team than they could ever access before. “When a customer reports a voltage issue, we can create a schedule of interval voltage reads, to see what is happening over a period of time,” Burgess said. “It used to take two days to manually retrieve load profile reads and transfer the data from the meter software to an Excel spreadsheet. Now, using the Elster AMI system in conjunction with the meter data management (MDM) software from ElectSolve, we can setup and run interval reads as often as every 15 minutes to discern quickly what’s going on.”
The same consultant who helped with the AMI system selection led CPWS to select ElectSolve Technology Solutions & Services as their MDM provider. Hunt noted, “We wanted the best MDM software on the market. ElectSolve focuses on the public power and cooperative sectors. When working with their staff, it’s clear that ElectSolve knows our industry very well. Plus, their system integration software is comprehensive and very easy to use.”
The combination of Elster’s AMI and ElectSolve MDM systems provide the CPWS customer service representatives on-screen access to detailed usage data when speaking with customers. “In the old days, we had very little data to go on when answering billing questions,” Charles Hunt said. “We could only see if a meter was running on the day we read it. Now, while on the phone with customers, our CSRs can click on detailed information from the MDM system, which instantly pulls up usage data and the temperature range for every day. We can talk customers through why their usage may have been higher on certain days due to extreme heat. Or, we can help them understand that the billing for one month may be low because they were on vacation for a number of days. Overall, with our new AMI and MDM systems, we are much more confident in our billing accuracy and able to provide much better information to our customers.”
Along with improving billing and customer service capabilities, CPWS’s AMI system is boosting the utility’s outage management and reliability. “The system pinpoints outage locations and which customers are impacted, making it much easier to dispatch crews effectively,” Doug Burgess explained. “Then, after power is restored, pinging meters enables us to confirm which ones are back on, in real-time, before the crew gets in the truck and drives away.”
In the future, CPWS will look at offering time-of-use-rates and perhaps customer-requested demand response programs. Having Elster’s AMI system in place will make possible the launching of such customer-driven programs.
Susan Ryba is a marketing consultant for Hometown Connections.