When AMI Goes Wrong

How to Avoid Common Hurdles When Deploying Advanced Metering System

By Al Weber, Vice President of Business Development, Hometown Connections, Inc.

March 2019

The advantages of AMI are many. Advanced metering infrastructure helps utilities manage outages, service calls, distribution system maintenance, and other key operations much more efficiently. AMI enables utilities to connect and disconnect meters remotely. It helps utilities offer customers innovative new services such as mobile apps for accessing current account information and service status maps. AMI gives everyone information and the flexibility to decrease their energy usage during peak hours and reduce costs. More broadly, if AMI is used wisely, it can be the two-way communications backbone for most utility functions and the enabler of an unlimited number of smart grid and smart city applications.

Today, the utility that delays the deployment of AMI runs the risk of becoming obsolete with the inability to exploit new incentivized programs and opportunities such as micro-generation, electric vehicle and electric vehicle charging options, smart lighting, alternative rates, transformer loading, demand response, distribution automation, and more.  While stories about project hurdles and ballooning costs hamper the expansion of AMI in public power, they can be overcome with an accurate view and understanding of the deployment process.

If they learn the lessons of the past and plan wisely for a data-rich future, community-owned utilities can invest in AMI with confidence.

First and foremost, all utility stakeholders (from staff to governing officials) must recognize that AMI touches every aspect of their organization, and the community as a whole. These include:

  • Connects/Disconnects
  • Customer Engagement
  • Customer Communications
  • Customer Services and Billing
  • Leak Detection
  • Outage Management
  • Mobile Workforce Management
  • GIS
  • Analytics
  • Voltage and Demand Reduction
  • Direct Load Control
  • Distribution System Automation
  • Green Alternatives such as:
    • Smart Lighting
    • Micro-Generation and reduced transmission charges
    • Electric Vehicles and load Improvement and peak load shifting
  • New rates that provide customer alternatives that make happier customers such as:
    • Pay-As-You-Go alternatives
    • Cost Incentives
    • Load Monitoring
  • Improved Service including:
    • Transformer Health Monitoring
    • Line and Transformer Load Monitoring
    • Better Rates
    • Voltage Monitoring and Conservation
  • And more

What to Consider
The key with any AMI proposal is the resulting Scope of Work. One must make sure that the selected vendor performs a complete and thorough integration.  The goal is automation. Think of an automated assembly line.  Quality is at its highest and costs are reduced the most when automation reaches its highest (and most complete) level.  That is, a full two-way integration covering all the databases for a complete array of information that will be both needed and available.  A complete integration may be better viewed as a series of smaller integrations.  Many times, this makes a daunting task much easier to digest and understand.  If each integration step is not well planned and executed, the utility will face an unhappy work force or expensive change orders from vendors further into the deployment process. Therefore, it pays to sit down, analyze, and work through every department’s needs up front. It does not pay to skimp on integration.

As another area of concern, utility management must understand the reception different departments and people within their organization may give to the AMI deployment process. Not everyone accepts the use of new technologies at the same time.  For example, the electric metering team may believe that the changes will be fantastic while the water metering team may be apathetic.  Alternatively, if the integration planning is weak and the CIS team has to perform dual tasks for the same operation, they will become unhappy about their increased workload.  This can become self-evident if they must manually convert data files that should convert automatically or make other repetitive time-consuming fixes.  While management must manage costs during negotiations with vendors, limiting or omitting integration expenditures will backfire.  In these cases, tightening the budget in other areas will ultimately prove to be more prudent.

Yet, even when the integration process is well-planned in advance, management must factor in utility cultural issues as well as organizational and individual talents. This is especially true when one is making a giant change in technology.  For example, moving from a total book (paper) system to total automation.  Employee skill levels must be addressed.  Also, just as data can be siloed in various locations, so may the people or departments.  A common example is friction between the electric and water side of the utility.  Proper AMI project management requires a leader capable of serving as an effective mediator among the staff and with the vendors, making sure everyone has realistic expectations and feels they are heard, or a real part of the team, because AMI is a team effort.

Finally, let’s focus on the Scope of Work.  It’s imperative to spend a sufficient amount of time and effort upfront (often more time than seems realistic) on the Scope of Work with each vendor supporting the AMI deployment. Everything should be covered in clear and easy to understand terms.  If complete turnkey deployment measures can be implemented, they are often worth the expense, and don’t forget that a good consultant can help avoid costly mistakes by making sure the Scope of Work is broad, detailed and buttoned up without being excessive.

Additional hurdles for municipal utility AMI deployments often include:

  • Limited ability to explore the product marketplace
  • Minimal negotiation clout
  • Minimal supporting staff
  • The need to support increasingly complex systems
  • Hiring, training, and retaining skilled IT staff
  • Addressing complex cybersecurity
  • Inexperience with negotiating system and IT-related contracts and issues
    • Existing substation construction or similar contracts as model for an AMI contract won’t work
  • Rigid vendor-hosted solutions with minimal guaranties and service level agreements
  • Unplanned future expenses – recurring costs, upgrades, maintenance, etc.
  • AMI cost should be amortized over a ten to twenty-year period to get a total cost picture
  • Inadequate training or understanding by the customer service staff and other personnel
  • Having a CIS vendor stuck in the AMR mindset or unwilling to take that all-in step with upgrades

Often, the above hurdles can result in the following:

  • Poor scoping at the onset resulting in scope creep and extra cost
  • Delays in project completion
  • Drawn-out deployment leading to limited improvements with limited benefit realization
  • AMI retraining needs not met resulting in interdepartmental conflict and dissatisfaction
  • Inability to use analytics from AMI-collected data resulting in an inability to make vital improvements in other areas

To help municipal utilities contend with these challenges, Hometown Connections has developed a turnkey, fully-managed hosted AMI solution, designed by and built for community owned utilities. The Hometown Connections Advanced Metering Program provides the IT staff and vendor package to support every aspect of the AMI system.  This includes negotiation, design, deployment, and operation with no hidden costs or “gotchas”. Hometown helps from the start and stays on board throughout the life of the system.  The commitment is long-term with a dedicated staff to prove it.

Our Advanced Metering Program’s pioneering design provides a holistic solution, leveraging extensive public utility experience and partnerships with expert service providers focused on providing lower hardware costs, reducing management complexity, lowering long-term risk, improving operational and system efficiencies, while forecasting and predicting the future costs of complex technology systems. Public utility systems utilizing the program will deploy a best-in-class infrastructure (meters, wireless network communications, applications and systems integrations) enabling the use of and support for a wide array of innovative and advanced technologies to serve the utility’s current needs and provide a platform for the addition of future smart city initiatives.

Hometown Connections AMI Solution – The Value Proposition

  • Scalable from tiny to large
  • One “Throat to Choke”
  • From initial project start through entire AMI period
  • No meter vendor lock-in
  • Itron (previously Silver Spring) supports Itron, Aclara/GE, L+G, Honeywell-Elster, Master Meter, Badger, Neptune, Hersey, AMCO, and more
  • Economy of scale pricing through aggregated wholesale purchasing
    • Includes wholesale pricing on meters, network equipment, and applications
    • Pricing is based on cost of service
  • Experienced staff to:
    • Support AMI deployment at all levels
    • Provide project management
    • Help with customer outreach
    • Provide presentations to utility leadership
  • Three integration options
    • two-way
    • one-way
    • flat-file export
  • No head-end system or software upgrade charges
  • The best cybersecurity
    • Meeting all current requirements and deploying the latest techniques
    • Intrusion prevention, data encryption, and complete system monitoring
    • Two complete and different systems and sites: primary and disaster recovery
    • If a utility wants a data server, Hometown provides the back-up
    • Annual disaster recovery and fail-over testing
  • Integrates to any billing or CIS system (new or legacy) with integration support
  • Includes utility portal for operations personnel
  • Includes consumer portal (optional)
  • Provides for Pay-as-you-go options
  • Provides smart City options which include
    • Smart lighting
    • Microgeneration
    • Electric vehicles
    • Voltage control
    • Transformer load and health monitoring
  • And more

It’s true. The prospect of an AMI deployment can be daunting. Yet, the benefits to your utility and community are many.  It is well worth the effort and investment. Hometown Connections can help. For information on the benefits of AMI, how to avoid common deployment mistakes, and the Hometown Connections Advanced Metering Program, contact me at aweber@hometownconnections.com, (919) 810-5070.

Al Weber
VP Business Development,
Hometown Connections, Inc.

About the Author
A highly recognized smart grid sales executive with demonstrated leadership success in the utilities market, Al Weber his Vice President of Business Development for Hometown Connections, Inc. He has a long and acclaimed track record of managing complex system and software partnerships, product development, market development, account closings, contract negotiations, and project delivery. With a professional career focused on innovative asset management solutions for municipal, cooperative, and investor-owned utilities, Mr. Weber’s areas of expertise include advanced metering, smart grid/smart cities, the Internet of Things, reliability/sustainability, and renewables.

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