Capitalising on the benefits of AMI technology


By Russ Borchardt and Gary Fritcke

Salt River Project (SRP) began deploying smart meters for its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) initiative in 2005. The primary business driver for the initiative was to leverage the capabilities of smart meters to continue improving SRP’s award-winning customer service.

SRP sought to provide more timely responses to customer service requests, provide customers with greater access to TOU rate plans, and provide customers with more timely and comprehensive information to help them better manage their energy usage and reduce energy costs. Additional incentives included reduced operating costs, increased employee safety, and expanded demand management capabilities.

SRP employees have installed more than 400,000 smart meters under its AMI initiative with the majority of residential meters equipped with remote connect/disconnect functionality. The flexible characteristics of the RF mesh technology enabled SRP to surgically deploy the meters in selected areas where there were backyard access issues, areas of safety concern, highturnover areas, and seasonal neighborhoods. This initial strategy allowed more customers to reap the benefits of TOU tariffs while reducing operational costs related to safety incidents, vehicular accidents and field visits.

Recognising the benefits, to position the AMI infrastructure to support additional customer services, and to serve as a cornerstone of future smart grid development, SRP is now in the process of developing the communication network necessary to support full AMI to all customers where smart meter technology is currently unavailable. Throughout the remaining 833 square mile portion of SRP’s territory, four collector meters and 64 surrounding node meters are being installed in each one square mile geographic area. Deployment is by “Township”, each consisting of (36) 1-mile square areas. The order of deployment is based upon customer density with priority given to “Townships” with the highest customer/meter densities.

AMI Tech

A sparse network in adjacent 1 mile square areas

Upon completion of the sparse communication network, smart meters will be installed on any SRP customer’s home that switches from SRP’s standard rate plan to a TOU rate. Additionally, smart meters can be fully deployed using the same geographic rollout strategy used to deploy sparse communication network. Within the “Township”, the order in which meter exchanges will occur will be impacted by both billing and meter reading cycles. Consideration of meter reading cycles will allow SRP to scale down the labour requirements for each geographic area and to redeploy labour to other areas of need – including the installation of smart meters.

Key benefits of AMI technology include the ability to provide customers with more timely and comprehensive information to help them reduce energy consumption and save money. SRP has achieved this goal in two ways, using the data provided by meter network.

First, SRP provides daily TOU usage information to all smart meter customers via the internet and the company’s website. Providing customers with usage information allows them to select the best rate plan based on actual TOU information.

SRP provides customers with e-notifications that alert them weekly or when their projected monthly bill reaches a customer established alert level. Customers may choose to receive their notifications via a web email or cell phone text message.

Secondly, through the availability of smart meter data, new opportunities are created for more flexible, targeted time-of-use pricing and peak load management. Based on early smart meter installations, SRP has explored these possibilities and developed a second, alternative TOU tariff that is anticipated to substantially lower peak load demand, and deliver operational and capital efficiencies. A close cousin to dynamic pricing, this tariff delivers effective peak load management by pricing incentive and visibility of consumption in a manner that is very attractive to customers and does not meet the resistance that mandatory programmes would experience. This trial tariff, named EZ-3, was created to specifically address SRP’s peak load time and season – the three hours in the height of the summer afternoon, 3 pm to 6 pm. By giving customers maximum information and financial incentive, customers are more aware of their usage and financial impacts and are able to more effectively conserve energy.

During a small trial season last year, SRP saw dramatic effect on the peak load, and cost savings of over 8%, as compared with standard tariffs.

Based on preliminary data, SRP anticipates that EZ-3 will achieve the same demand management and economic results as more rigid dynamic and peak pricing, while enhancing customer satisfaction. SRP will provide the EZ-3 tariff on a voluntary basis to all smart metered customers.

SRP’s AMI technology is installed on residential and commercial accounts, and all meters are reliably read daily with an average performance rate of 99.5%. The daily read schedule captures TOU data on each meter regardless of the customer’s tariff, daily maximum demand, voltage, and outage data. Each meter is configurable to collect 15-minute interval load profile data. The meters also can be read on an as-needed basis to check readings, complete tariff changes, check voltage levels, validate power status, perform diagnostics, and complete disconnection or reconnection services.

Customers turning off service, or eligible for credit disconnection, are remotely disconnected through a batch process from SRP’s billing system to the AMI data collection system. All disconnect operations are completed by noon each day. Restoring service through remote reconnections is completed throughout the day within two hours as turn on orders and credit payments are received, or at a time requested by the customer. Prior to reconnecting service the customer approves the power restoration. A significant AMI customer service benefit is that reconnections are performed 24 hours, 7 days per week. To date SRP has performed over 100,000 remote disconnections and reconnections of service.

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Comparison of EZ-3 TOU and other tariffs

Customers requesting to terminate service who do not have a smart meter equipped with an internal switch are turned off in a “soft off” mode. The turn off order is entered into SRP’s billing system for the requested date, and upon the effective date, a remote reading of the meter is automatically used for the ending meter read to generate a final bill and close the account. While the location has an inactive account, the smart meter is monitored through the daily read schedule and by the billing system for usage. If there is usage on the meter before a new customer initiates service, the usage is flagged and a field order is generated for further investigation.

SRP has been very successful in leveraging the capabilities of smart meters to achieve its goals of improving customer service while also improving operating efficiencies. Areas in which SRP has been able to improve customer care are:

  • More timely response to service requests: Service connection and disconnection orders can be completed on the same day they are requested or at a future date and time that is convenient to the customer. Reconnection of service can occur 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Tariff changes can be made on the day requested without the delay of waiting for a meter exchange field visit.
  • Improved access to information for existing and new TOU rate plans.
  • Customers are now enabled to see, understand and manage their energy consumption via the web: Daily consumption data, trending, bill analysis and energy savings opportunities are available and are utilised by smart meter customers 398% more often than energy consumption tools available to non-smart meter customers.
  • Improved eligibility and access to existing and new TOU rate plans: Previously, eligibility for a customer to select a TOU tariff was restricted to those customers who were able to provide free and safe access to the meter so that the meter could be manually read through its optical port. Customers who had meters in inaccessible locations or where safety issues such as dogs were present, were not eligible to participate in TOU programmes. SRP’s new EZ-3 TOU tariff provides an alternate time-based plan that may be more lifestyle convenient and rewarding to customers to reduce energy costs. EZ-3 conserves usage during summer peak hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. SRP has realised 20% higher participation in TOU programmes by customers with smart meters versus customers with non-smart meters.
  • Customers are able to more effectively manage their energy costs by selecting a due date for their bill payment
  • Ability to develop new flexible rate and programme offerings such as EZ-3 positions SRP to expand its TOU/demand management initiatives and swiftly adapt to customer needs and expectations.

In addition to the customer benefits achieved, SRP has been able to capitalise on the benefits of smart metering to improve operating efficiencies and reduce costs. These benefits include:

  • Improved revenue recovery: SRP customers who are disconnected for credit related issues on average pay account arrears in 1 day to reestablish service compared with 4 days for customers without smart meters to settle their account balances. Further, credit troubled customers without smart meters often are not disconnected on the day they become eligible for disconnection of service due to field workloads and available manpower. Smart metered customers are remotely disconnected the day they become eligible. On average, the arrears of a customer with a smart meter is approximately $100 less than a customer without a smart meter.
  • Reduced field visits, labour hours, mileage and fuel consumption: Remote meter capabilities have enabled SRP to avoid more than 580,000 field visits through automated service order completion, resulting in a saving of 186,000 labour hours. A follow-on savings of 1.2 million miles in reduced transportation and over 122,000 gallons of fuel have been realised as a result of the AMI deployment.
  • Improved safety: SRP has realised a 40% reduction in employee injuries since the beginning of its AMI initiative.