Smart Energy Use

Scalable technology puts AMI within reach of public power utilities

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Advanced metering infrastructure systems have many benefits, especially for public power utilities that serve growing communities.

An AMI system offers higher reliability and better customer service. Because it is capable of a two-way flow of information, an AMI meter can collect customer usage data, allowing for the automation of meter reading and bill preparation for electric power service, as well as for water use service. An AMI system allows the utility to remotely turn on or turn off a customer’s electrical service and enables prepay, outage reporting, voltage monitoring, as well as remote move-ins and move-outs.

Despite the benefits, AMI systems have been cost prohibitive for many public power utilities. Many big companies that dominate the AMI market require large orders to offset their costs. Most of those companies use proprietary collection networks and must erect towers to serve the territory that their meters serve. This can come at a huge cost that is ultimately borne by the customer.

In addition, these companies sometimes charge customers for the software to run their cellular network or licensing fees for use of the network. And the utility often must have a dedicated database administrator to run the system.

However, over the past decade technological advances have come together that make AMI more affordable, for all public power utilities. Advances in cellular technology and cloud-based computing have evolved to the point where they can handle many AMI communications needs.

Instead of building a private network, for example, companies such as Nighthawk Total Control can piggy back on existing towers used for cellular phone service. Not only does that avoid the high overhead of building a private network, it eliminates the need to charge customers broadband rental fees. In addition, the communication companies that use the towers have a strong incentive to maintain them and promptly fix any problems.

AMI eliminates the need for manual data collection, allowing the utility to make more productive use of staff time. An AMI meter can also collect customer data on demand — for example, when a customer ends service rather than waiting for the next scheduled meter reading. The system can collect a much richer stream of data such as interval data to help a utility to implement time-of-use rates that better reflect its costs.

And, because it can “see” a customer’s usage, an AMI system allows a utility to better manage its grid. It can monitor wires for under or over voltage conditions. An AMI meter also can provide a utility with more accurate and timely outage information, allowing for faster and more accurate responses to outages.

On the other side of the meter, an AMI meter can give customers more information about and control over their electricity usage. With its two-way capabilities, an AMI system can accommodate net metering for customers who want to participate in distributed energy resource programs such as rooftop solar.

Companies such as Nighthawk can now take off-the-shelf meters made by manufacturers such as Aclara and Itron and leverage the power of their full ANSI, C12.19 support while enabling additional functionality to create the most advanced meters on the market.

For its Adaptiv™ technology, for instance, Nighthawk adds the wireless mesh technology it developed to its meters. Mesh technology creates a network of radio signals. A mesh network builds redundancy and resiliency into a communications network.

Adding mesh technology to its meters makes Nighthawk meters “intelligent,” says Chad Bowers, marketing director at Nighthawk. The meters become nodes on the system that can “form ad hoc networks on the fly,” he says. While adding redundancy and reliability, the mesh technology can also lower costs by reducing the use of the cellular network.

Nighthawk’s Adaptiv technology also takes advantage of the advances in cloud-based computing. Instead of using specialized AMI software that requires lengthy training of an onsite technology specialist, Bowers says the systems Nighthawk deploys are hosted through the cloud and use ordinary browser software to run. In addition to reducing maintenance, being cloud based also means the software can be updated automatically and is always up to date. Utility personnel can access the software on any phone, tablet or computer.

And, without a bulky proprietary software package, the AMI system is incremental and scalable, a system that can be designed to fit a customer’s budget and needs – it can be adapted to automate both electric and water meters – and allows for future incremental additions.

For a small public power utility, these are important considerations. “It is important having everything consolidated in the office,” said Chuck Ralls, city manager for the City of Comanche, Okla. Comanche has 850 meters on its system.

Comanche’s public utility just finished installing a Nighthawk Adaptiv system. Ralls says the system will use less manpower and give him the ability to connect or disconnect a customer using any device, even on a weekend. And, he says, in a storm, the system will identify every single home without power, even if the owner is on vacation.

The main reason to switch, though, says Ralls, is efficiency. Ralls says the utility has been looking for ways to cut its budget. With the old meters, it would take “one guy in our system an entire month to read all the meters.” That position is now going to be eliminated and that person is going to be moved to the street department where the city is shorthanded, Ralls says. With AMI “I can push one button and get every reading in the city.”

Ralls is also pleased with the prospect of the higher security that comes with an AMI system. The new meters are tamper proof, he says, adding that the city had a lot of theft of electricity. So, the new system could also boost revenues for the utility.

In his initial assessment, Ralls estimated it would take two years and three months to earn back the city’s investment in the Nighthawk Adaptiv AMI system. He is now expecting to earn back that investment in 18 months.

For more information about Nighthawk, click here.