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Public Power Utilities Address Smart Meter Supply Chain Constraints

While ongoing transformer supply chain issues facing utilities have understandably drawn a lot of national attention, the power sector has also had to grapple with supply chain issues related to the deployment of smart meters.

Barrie Corp, Supply Chain Manager for Florida public power utility Gainesville Regional Utilities, detailed what he sees as the major issues facing supply chain personnel when it comes to AMI technology.

First, he noted the importance of selecting the correct manufacturer.

“While this is usually done through an approved bidding process, sometimes, because of the overall project costs, this is negotiated at a higher corporate level and supply chain personnel are not involved in the process and end up dealing with the results,” he said.

And supply chain personnel “are usually the people who will have past experience dealing with the manufacturers/vendors who will be participating in the bid process. Their input would be valuable in grading past performance both in product quality and on-time delivery performance,” he said.

Corp also highlighted contracts and changing pricing.

He said that contracts for AMI materials may have been established a year or more prior to the product manufacturing start. In the interim, materials, labor and fuel costs have increased and now pricing may need to change.

“Contracts need to allow for some wiggle room that both the vendor and the utility can live with, and not violate any pertinent procurement procedures. If a utility tries to enforce a set price that a vendor agreed to over a year ago, and costs associated with manufacturing have almost doubled in the last year, then they leave the manufacturer with no recourse but to declare Force Majeure and either renegotiate the contract or the utility has to go out and rebid the project, starting from scratch again,” he said.

Corp said that the last two to three years “in the supply chain world has seen increase on materials at every level due to all of those increases mentioned earlier.”

He also noted expanding lead times. “Many utilities are participating in AMI projects of one kind or another,” he said.

This consumption, along with the material issues, is causing lead times on AMI materials to grow as much as three to four times as long as it took them a couple of years ago.

“This will cause delays in materials deliveries and could potentially push any AMI project timelines back significantly. Ordering larger quantities for delivery to cover lead time issues is possible, but then you can run into storage capacity issues. Depending on the size of the utility this could be thousands of meters being delivered at one time,” Corp told Public Power Current.

The GRU executive also noted material planning. “Something that may slip past some organizations” are the ancillary materials connected to existing meters in the field that will need to be replaced when the new AMI meters are installed.

“Some of these materials have been in place for many years and will not easily allow for easy exchange, requiring replacement. A sudden increase in usage of these materials may also cause a delay if they have not been properly planned for, especially in today’s excessive lead time environment,” Corp said.

Snohomish County PUD and Tacoma Power

In August 2022, citing supply chain and manufacturing issues, Washington State’s Snohomish County PUD said that it was delaying the deployment of its Connect Up program until mid-2023. The PUD’s Connect Up program is an infrastructure and technology improvement project that will install new electric and water advanced meters on all customers’ homes and businesses.

At the time of this announcement, the PUD said that it was originally scheduled to begin deployment of new meters at the start of 2023. It also said that depending on when it received meters from its meter provider, it planned to delay deployment of residential meters until the summer of 2023 and commercial and industrial meters until later in the fall of 2023.

“We began exchanging electric and water meters on residential homes through our Connect Up program in early August,” said Aaron Swaney, a Snohomish County PUD spokesperson, on Oct. 3, in providing an update on the meter deployment.

“The ramp up has been slow, however, due to meter delivery forecasts that have decreased. Since early August, we’ve installed 750 electric meters and 700 water meters on residential homes,” he said. “Installation of commercial and industrial meters has been delayed until the start of 2024, when we anticipate our first delivery of commercial advanced meters.”

Meanwhile, in a recent episode of APPA’s Public Power Now podcast, Jackie Flowers, Director of Washington State public power utility Tacoma Public Utilities, noted that the utility is in the process of upgrading to advanced metering infrastructure.

“We had an experience with supply chain shortages that has stalled our project by a couple years,” she said. “We’re anticipating that we will have meter installations complete” in the third quarter of 2024. “It was initially going to be done in 2022,” Flowers said.

North Attleboro Electric Department

In an interview with Public Power Current, Peter Kiley, IT Manager for Massachusetts-based public power utility North Attleboro Electric Department, noted that there are a number of benefits that can flow from advanced meters.

He noted that the utility currently has Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) meters that are “somewhere between 20 and 30 years old.”

North Attleboro Electric Department made the decision to replace those meters with AMI meters. The utility’s board approved the AMI project a few years ago.

Kiley explained the benefits that the utility expects to flow from AMI meters include being able to provide more accurate data “so that we can have more accurate billing” utilizing 15-minute interval data. This will make it easier for the utility to identify appliances and other electronic devices within a residence or a commercial property to “see how much electric usage is going on,” he said.

There have been supply chain issues tied to the AMI project, which has delayed the AMI rollout, Kiley noted.

He noted that delays related to smart meter rollouts due to supply chain issues are not unique to North Attleboro Electric Department.

The utility expects to have all of its AMI meters installed by late third quarter/early fourth quarter of 2024.

It has received all of the meters. “We have some onsite, but the rest are in off-site storage with our local partner, Irby,” he noted.

Eugene Water and Electric Board

Meanwhile, Oregon public power utility Eugene Water and Electric Board in August noted that it has been rolling out smart meters to customers free of charge over the last several years, though supply chain disruptions in the last two years have slowed down deployment.

“The supply of residential electric meters from our supplier Sensus has picked up, and we forecast that by the end of the year we’ll have enough in inventory to begin deploying them again and replacing existing meters with new smart meters,” said Aaron Orlowski, a communications specialist and primary spokesperson for Oregon public power utility the Eugene Water and Electric Board, on Oct. 4.

“We’re still hovering at about 69% deployed,” he said.

“The supply chain challenges that we’ve faced are the same ones that the entire industry has been wrestling with the last few years,” he noted.

City of Rock Hill, S.C.

Joel Abernathy, Operations Superintendent for the City of Rock Hill, S.C., told Public Power Current that the city signed a contract in 2016 related to AMI infrastructure.

“We did a couple of pilots” involving smart meters, which were completed in 2018 “and then we started our deployment on the rest of them,” he said. “We deployed about 76,000 meters total,” Abernathy noted.

In 2019, “we were getting in shipments quite often and we kept everything going.”

The AMI project was completed in early 2020.

Since that time, with the COVID pandemic, “everything went downhill” with respect to the supply of meters.

When the city utility needs to replace water meters, the lead time is about two to three months for delivery.  “Our water meter boxes – for awhile it was taking six months to get boxes. We can get them in about a month now, so those have gotten better” in terms of time to delivery.

With respect to Encoder Receiver Transmitters that can connect to the water meters, “it takes about a month to two months to get those,” depending on the amount of ERTs needed. ERTs are the communication modules between the meter and the AMI network.

It is currently taking about two months to get external antennas for water meters, he said.

On the electric side, “it’s taking us seven to eight months to get meters,” Abernathy said.

Denton Municipal Electric (Texas)

In the City of Denton, one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., Denton Municipal Electric was facing similar supply challenges for smart meters as was the rest of the nation, noted Stuart Birdseye, External Affairs Administrator/Public Information Officer for Denton Municipal Electric.

In 2015, the city had successfully completed a five-year deployment of AMI meters. In 2020 amid the COVID epidemic and resulting supply chain shortage in all industries, it became clear that future orders would have difficulty being fulfilled by vendors, he noted.

“Though we were facing substantial delays in receiving meter orders, the city continued to have new apartment complexes, neighborhoods and commercial businesses being built. With the demand for meters from all the growth and maintenance from maintaining the current meter population on the system, it became clear we were going run out of meters,” he said.

DME staff began to get creative. Staff began calling several vendors to inquire about refurbished electric meters and was able to locate a supply of refurbished AMR meters.

In order to keep the refurbished meters in concentrated areas, and not spread all over the city, staff began deploying them in multi-family developments. In each bank of meters, staff left one AMI meter to assist with outage reporting back to the Outage Management System (OMS). To read the refurbished meters, staff dug the old AMR meter reading handhelds out of storage and found them to be in working order to use for collecting reads.

Given the fact that Denton is a college town with two major universities, there are also a large number of multi-family complexes that include electricity as part of the rent, said Birdseye.  

“Since turn-ons/offs don’t occur as frequently with these services, they were an ideal target to exchange meters.  Staff was able to replace most of the AMI meters at these locations and redistribute them to new housing developments in the city allowing for growth to continue without pause,” he said.

At the peak of the shortage, over 3,500 AMR meters were deployed (out of over 63,000 total meters in DME’s territory). Now, back orders for AMI meters are beginning to be filled and inventories are being built back up.  Staff is now strategically changing out the refurbished meters to back to AMI.

Troy Utilities

In an interview with Public Power Current, Brian Chandler, General Manager of Alabama public power utility Troy Utilities, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic affected the lead time for meters – both electric and water.

While the delays for smart meters have not been as dramatic as those seen for transformers, he noted, smart meter delays have been significant, nonetheless.

Chandler said that Troy Utilities deployed AMI meters on the electric side almost 10 years ago and AMI water meters over five years ago.

“At that time, remote disconnect meters were significantly more expensive than a regular meter, so we chose not to fully deploy those,” he said in the interview. The utility has been “going back through and converting the non-remote disconnect meters to a newer version of a meter and ones with a remote disconnect.”

Chandler said that during the early part of the COVID pandemic, “meter lead times from our supplier on the electric side almost went out to a year.” That’s where things stood at the end of 2020, he said.

“We were used to getting electric meters” in a 10-to-12-week timeframe previously, he went on to say.

Since the end of 2020, things have slowly gotten better from a supply chain standpoint, Chandler said. “It’s not back to obviously what it was pre-COVID, but it is better.”

He said the supply chain constraints for meters ease at times and then become more challenging at other times.

“If you order new meters, you can get them. But if you’ve got a box of old ones that need to be sent back and repaired” or replaced, the lead time is a year or more, Chandler said.

Chandler said that once meter lead times reached a year, Troy Utilities started to think outside the box in terms of strategies to address the supply chain issues.

He said that a lot of municipalities in the region around Troy Utilities “got caught up in the same backlog and supply chain issues that we were” facing.

At the same time, several of the electric cooperatives around Troy Utilities were deploying smart meters.

“We have a good relationship with a lot of them,” he said, referring to the cooperatives. “We reached out to one of them that’s about an hour away from us and they were just getting ready to get started on their AMI deployment,” Chandler said.

Troy Utilities asked the cooperative what it planned to do with its old mechanical meters and indicated that the public power utility would be interested in procuring a couple hundred meters – primarily for residential use. The cooperative said it wouldn’t be a problem for it to provide these meters to Troy Utilities.

The meters from the cooperative effectively served as a backup for Troy Utilities in the event that it was short on meters.

While mechanical meters require on-site visits for meter reads by Troy Utilities personnel, “at least we had an option to be able to put meters in so that we wouldn’t be putting people off and delaying” turning on meters for residents.  

“We went ahead and reached out and lined that up with them just to have as a backup just in case,” Chandler said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to do very much of that. We did the same thing on the water side and actually put in some mechanical meters” that were installed on a temporary basis.

“We tried to put them in all in a concentrated area and not spread them out all over the system,” he said. That way personnel with Troy Utilities “didn’t have to run all over the place to manually read meters,” Chandler said.

“We got creative to make it work and did our best so that our customers, whether they were existing or new,” wouldn’t be negatively impacted.

City of Piqua, Ohio

Ed Krieger, Power System Director for the City of Piqua, Ohio, noted in an interview with Public Power Current that the public power city has a fixed network AMI system for water and electric meters. 

The city several years ago received a grant for the installation of water smart meters, “and that kind of got the thing kicked off,” Krieger said.

The project got underway around 2018 and “pretty much bought all our electric and water meters during that timeframe,” he said. “We didn’t have any supply chain issues then.”

But more recently, the city has experienced supply chain issues tied to remote disconnect meters on the electric side.

When the city utility originally did the installations several years ago, it installed remote disconnect-capable meters for residential customers in apartment complexes, inside meters and difficult to access locations.

“We’re hoping to kind of get out of the business of visiting customer sites” to disconnect and reconnect service, Krieger said.

The city utility wanted to continue to change out residential meters “with more of these RD-capable meters.”

In early 2022, the city utility placed an order for RD-capable meters “and we still have yet to receive that order,” Krieger said, so “that’s a supply chain issue that we’ve had.” The utility placed a similar order at the beginning of this year but has not received that order either.

The meter supplier recently told Krieger that it is hopeful that it can deliver some meters in December, and “they’re hopeful that everything that we have on order gets delivered by the first quarter of next year.”

The city utilizes a fixed network system under which “basically you have these data collectors – we have four of them on our system where the meters communicate with the data collectors through the air” and then the data “jumps on our fiber network at the data collector.”

The fixed network requires a network interface card that requires computer chips. “We’ve all heard about the computer chip issues,” he noted. The supply of computer chips has been constrained for several years, Krieger noted.

In terms of the benefits of AMI, Krieger noted that the city has implemented a new customer information system that has a lot of technical capabilities.

By using a mobile application on their phones, customers now have the capability to look at their daily electric and water usage. “They’ve got real time control of that information,” he said.

From an electric utility standpoint, “now we have more granular data that we can use” for system planning uses and “making sure that we’re proactive in terms of being able to keep up with our customers’ demand needs. We’ve had instances where – by monitoring the data -- we’ve actually been able to identify outages before customers have even contacted us.”

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