How utilities are applying technology to thrive in the new energy and water reality


By Malcolm Unsworth, Itron CEO

In the last century, while the world’s population tripled, water consumption increased by a factor of six. For natural gas demand, the same rapid growth has experts saying that global demand for this clean energy source will increase by 60% over the next 15 years. To compound these issues, supply and delivery issues are challenging providers of both resources.

Despite these challenges, water and gas utilities are expected to continue to reliably deliver both resources, while maintaining exceptional service to their customers. Water utilities face additional hurdles associated with aging infrastructures, as well as new conservation and sustainability requirements.

To that end, water providers are increasingly looking to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technologies to help sustain vital water resources.

Water AMI, sometimes referred to as smart metering, is a twoway communications network that collects and presents time synchronised interval meter data to utilities and provides usage profiles of customers’ consumption over time. It combines high powered end points, network collectors, a data collection engine and fixed network technology to enable providers to know who is using how much water and when.

Effective water management, delivery and consumption will depend on a utility’s awareness and utilisation of the emerging technologies already making headway in meeting utility obstacles head on – solutions like water AMI.

In fact, water AMI technology, and how utilities apply the technology, will play a central role in meeting environmental mandates, as well as improving operational efficiencies. These smart metering technologies impact overall water demand and reduce water losses by: 

  • Empowering end users with timely information and effective tools to reduce their water usage 
  • Allowing providers to establish differential and effective water rates 
  • Improving the effectiveness of preventive investments and maintenance 
  • Dynamically managing the balance between production and consumption 
  • Enabling leak detection in pipelines and behind the meter.

When water systems are performing at their peak, the next obvious area of improvement is closing the gap between production and meter accuracy. Inaccurate meters create a measurement delta between what is pumped and what is delivered. Reflecting actual usage can provide immediate benefits to a water utility by reducing consumption, increasing revenue, and influencing the corresponding data collection and meter data management systems. It’s the perfect synergy between production, distribution, customer care and billing, and subsequently enables improved forecasting, network and operational efficiency, and revenue protection.

Fundamental to these benefits are: 

  • Fully unattended, daily consumption readings for every meter in the network 
  • Time synchronized data logging with hourly consumption intervals and abnormal consumption indicators 
  • Two-way communication to each end point to enable ondemand consumption reads 
  • Secure data transmission and automatic data recovery.

With this short list of requirements, true value for utilities and their customers are quickly realised.

Customer empowerment and conservation
As smart metering gains momentum, customer engagement and long term sustainability are realised with automated billing data, reduction in overheads, detailed consumption information, faster complaint reconciliation, and improved customer payment options. Through improved operational efficiency, water providers can offer incentives to customers relative to conservation. Utilities are also able to measure and manage conservation programme effectiveness, as well as in-home leak detection.

Operational efficiencies
On the distribution side, there is meter right-sizing, reverse flow detection and system integrity monitoring. Enhanced financial performance comes in the form of tamper reporting and consumption monitoring and detection of suspicious usage patterns.


Impact of advanced meter management on operations

On the gas side, it’s much the same. Gas utilities are recognising the need to concentrate on operational efficiencies and consumer consumption behaviours, and conservation and distribution integrity and reliability, in addition to system safety. To do this, they are also turning to AMI, or smart metering, and its associated collection of interval meter data and advanced communication networks to provide an unprecedented amount of functionality.

What is a gas AMI solution?
AMI for gas providers refers to fixed network and meter data management solutions that deliver advanced data collection, information management and innovative functionality. The information it delivers can be used internally for customer service issues or shared with customers to empower them with knowledge to make informed usage decisions. A gas AMI solution consists of the following components: 

  • A smart gas meter 
  • A smart end point 
  • A two-way data collection network 
  • Network software 
  • Meter data management software.

While the gas industry has been slow to embrace AMI technologies, the challenge of managing growing gas demand combined with higher operating costs and reduced staff, is forcing many gas providers to consider information systems that better enable them to monitor and manage the delivery and usage of gas. While a simple consumption read is vital for billing purposes, more frequent interval data from an AMI network is becoming just as important to address evolving operational, customer service and operational management challenges.

Customer service
Gas AMI provides customer service beyond a bill and a new level of connection to customers. Time synchronised interval meter data and on-demand meter reads from the field from an AMI solution enables customer service representatives to quickly and efficiently respond to customer inquiries for real time bill reconciliation. Access to historical usage information such as monthly, weekly and daily profiling along comparative analysis and trending reports presents gas utilities with a much better understanding of customer usage. The granular meter data also gives customers greater confidence in usage and billing data. Customer safety is always a concern for gas utilities and the two-way communications of a gas AMI network enables remote service shut-off at the gas meter as a safety precaution in the case of a premise gas leak or fire event.

Customer empowerment and conservation
When shared with customers, interval meter data empowers them with timely and accurate usage information to make informed decisions about their consumption. AMI meter modules send meter data to in-home displays which present the data in commodity units of measurement or current cost information. The same data can be shared by the utility to web services which present usage information in similar formats online. Access to this information provides customers with an understanding of their consumption behaviour, increases customers’ engagement and active participation in conservation programmes.


Itron architecture and information flows

Operational efficiencies
Gas AMI is changing the way utilities operate with efficiencies and cost reductions considered unfeasible just a few years ago. Gas AMI reduces truck rolls and carbon emissions as well as associated staff and maintenance costs. With a gas AMI network, gas utilities are able to remotely collect on-demand reads to gas meters for move-in, move-out reads, customer service enquiries and other off-cycle read requirements. Timely and accurate meter data decreases billing complaints and helps accelerate payment for additional operational benefits.

Also with two-way communications, gas meters can be remotely disconnected to provide premise safety or at a customer move-out or vacant location to avoid misuse and lost revenue. Field service calls to gas meters can be eliminated by performing remote meter interrogations and firmware downloads.

Distribution system integrity and safety
The volatility of natural gas makes safety a top issue for gas utilities. Gas AMI helps gas utilities to ensure greater distribution system integrity with sensors and telemetry technologies that remotely monitor different key distribution system performance indicators. Pipe corrosion is proactively monitored by collecting daily cathodic protection readings with a telemetry device and communicating the data back to the utility with the gas AMI network. System pressure can be remotely monitored and alerted, by collecting pressure recording data over the network should pressure fall below or above preset thresholds, to avoid adverse pressure related events. Temperature and volume flows can also be remotely monitored by integrating a telemetry device to an electronic corrector, enabling the gas utility to properly manage gas distribution. Safety is enhanced at the customer premise in case of a gas leak or fire event with the remote service shut-off enabled by the two-way communications of a gas AMI network.

Thus, similar to water AMI technology, smart metering benefits in the gas world are closing the loop between production, distribution and the customer.

And it’s increasingly clear that delivering these benefits is bigger than any single company or organisation. Working together we can ensure reliable energy and water delivery at the lowest cost and secure our precious resources for future generations. It is indeed a time to discover great opportunity in the midst of great crisis. Smart metering can be such an “opportunity.”