One For All – For Better Or Worse


Have you noticed the change? Twenty years ago the restaurant served a meal when the meat was on one part of the plate, a vegetable in another part and the potato or rice or pasta in a third. The meat probably didn’t touch the vegetable which probably didn’t touch the potato – unless some sauce or gravy haphazardly connected them in a puddle. Today it is the opposite. These same dinner components will often arrive at your  able in a vertical stack with the mashed potato or pasta at the bottom, the meat in the middle and the vegetables piled colourfully on top. Mount Everest in food! More points for the presentation? Ah, but does the food taste any better? No. Is it easier to eat? No. Then why do it? The answer must be: appearances. It’s not what it is or how good it tastes, but how it appears.

Same thing for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems. If we keep piling on applications and features, doesn’t the system get more and more attractive? It’s the old Swiss Army knife syndrome – more blades for every conceivable purpose. As your Swiss Army knife increases to 10, 15, 25 different blades you begin to realise that it is also getting too big and heavy and unwieldy, and that some of the features that look good really are not especially useful. Many modern two way AMI systems are capable of retrieving meter readings and also disseminating command and data to devices in the field. That ability to transmit outbound commands and data from the utility to customers’ homes and businesses is very useful, and is the underpinning of some very successful combined AMI and load control systems. But be careful. This same two-way capability of some AMI systems can become a technology quagmire for the well-intentioned visionary.

If we can send addressable data to each customer’s home, then why not send stock market quotes, weather forecasts, school lunch menus, energy price signals and soccer schedules? Soon we may find ourselves talking about a communications gateway. Yes! Pile it on! We could order pizza and do our banking with this same gateway, or monitor our energy use by the hour. Pile it higher! At some point this “meal” can go no higher and it starts to slide off the plate. This gateway becomes a complex, bloated, too costly gray(?) box that doesn’t do anything very well, and that nobody wants to pay for. Who should pay anyway? With all the provision for these other services and other interfaces, the box’s AMI functionality is squeezed by all these other requirements to the point of near irrelevance. The customer is much smarter than we think. Is it any wonder that the streets are littered with the failed attempts of companies to make the meter the gateway to the hearts and minds of the consumer? It sounded good. What happened?

For openers consider this axiom of technology applications: “Just because you could doesn’t mean you should!” Two needs arise with time-of-use or dynamic peak sensitive rates. First, the consumer’s ability to respond to higher price periods is always better if he is informed and conscious of when electricity is most expensive. How shall we inform him? Second, if the consumer can automate some aspects of his response he will respond more effectively than if he has to act manually. For example, if non-essential loads are automatically deferred to lower priced periods, the customer saves money and the utility’s demand response (DR) objectives are met. How shall we automate the response? The first temptation is to require that customer notification and demand response automation be functions of the AMI system, and to specify that system accordingly. Why? Because we can. But wait, is there another way? Is there a more effective approach than just piling the DR on top of the AMI system, even though the AMI system may be nominally capable of customer communications? Often there is. Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but using a separate parallel communication system for customer notification and for communication with customer load control devices is often simpler, cheaper, faster and better than trying to force the meter data retrieval system to perform the customer communication task. What’s more, there are dozens of existing, proven communicating systems already out there and in service to choose from. “Just because you could doesn’t mean you should!”  the right choices are always more complicated than mere technical possibility. Unless … let’s see … perhaps we could have the AMI system disseminate weather reports … or track the location of our children and pets … or send animated birthday cards to relatives, or … .