Utility Billing

Utility Billing

Smart Metering started with Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) and has now migrated to Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI). AMR allows for only one-way communication (Meter to the Utility) but the AMI systems allows for the two-way communication between the utilities and the meters. AMR and AMI have same benefits when it comes togetting away from manual reading meters, power outage notification, and power quality monitoring. These metering solutions have been the first wave of the coming Smart Grid technology. They are higher profile and contain highest risk/reward with the customers. If the Return on Investment (ROI) can be proven at the customer level then the next phases of the Smart Grid will be easier to sell to the customers, members, and/or stockholders.

Billing the Customer

As the smart meters come online the natural progression is for the customer to pay via online bill pay, interactive voice response (IVR) as well as through the mail and customer service reps. Smart meters allow utilities to get readings anywhere from every 24 hours to however often the utility desires to receive the data. Just note the more frequent the meter reading the data server receiving the data will be need to be scaled appropriately. The days of estimating are quickly becoming non-existent.

The City of Anderson Utilities have implemented Aclara’s Star AMR system for both the Water utility and Electric utility. There are approximately 36,000 customers in Anderson. In conjunction with the AMR system Anderson utilities installed Milsoft Utility Solution’s Telelink IVR product in September 2010. In the first 12 months since installation of Telelink $3 million in revenue was collected from customers calling in on the phone. Telelink also allows the utility to reverse call customers who are in danger of being cut-off. Once the automated system connects with the customers, they are given theoption of paying their bill via credit card to avoid being cut-off the next day. Telelink takes pressure off of the utility billing office and the customer service reps through providing information to the customers, arranging financing, taking payments, routing phone calls to different departments, and many more functions.

Customer Relationship

Utilities must address their relationship with the customers. The installation of smart metering affords the perfect opportunity for utilities to bridge the great divide between themselves and the customer.

Utilities must address their relationship with the customers. The installation of smart metering affords the perfect opportunity for utilities to bridge the great divide between themselves and the customer. We have seen Google (Power Meter) and Microsoft (Hohm) come up with products to involve the customer only to give up. Cisco in the last couple of weeks has bailed out of energy management for buildings. IT companies just do not understand the utility industry well enough to make sense of the intricacies. The electrical power industry needs to be the driver and developer of the technology Google, Microsoft,and Cisco are trying to develop. In a world were smart phones are so prevalent customers need a one stop app on their phones which interfaces with the thermostat and the meter data simultaneously, allowing the customers to control the energy use in their homes remotely.

Smart meters must also interface with billing systems and the Customer Information System (CIS). To go a step further it would be ideal for the smart meters to be interoperable with the billing system and CIS of the utility, allowing for the customer service cost to drop. The Guardian newspaper in the UK wrote an article explaining how the system works in a house and why it helps the earth.

Customer involvement at the beginning is essential. If they are not involved in the beginning there is a threat of a backlash. In the Feb 2011 issue of Electric Light & Power, Stuart Ravens has this to say about Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) in their smart meter roll out:

PG&E did not plan its customer advocacy program well, which led to many complaints including the accuracy of meters, fears of overcharging, concerns regarding data privacy, the security of smart meters and even health concerns about radio frequency transmitters.

Significant and well-organized protests followed, including calls for a government moratorium on PG&Es smart meter deployment until the issues were addressed.

To date the utility has spent about $4 per meter on consumer engagement. In more successful projects, however, customer spend can be as low as $1 to $1.50 per meter. Education need not be an expensive exercise, just well-targeted, with early and sensitive implementation and sustained messaging.

This example should warn other markets that utilities must be on the front foot with consumers when deploying smart meters to prevent a backlash from destroying potential cash savings.

Social networking can be leveraged by utilities to reach out to customers. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google +, and other virtual communities need to be used by the utilities to offer information on rate increases, outages, events, give-a-ways, etc. to build trust with their customers. Regardless of the size of the utility their customers are heavily involved in the social network world. As the trust is built with the customer the easier it will be for the utility to install the Smart Grid components and request higher rates if need be to afford those components.

Communications

The communication pipe line and the security of this pipe line will be crucial in the expansion of the smart meters in the Smart Grid. We are talking about massive amounts of data flowing from the field to the data center in near real-time now and in the future. This is data carrying information about our customers and information which is sensitivein nature as well as vulnerable to cyber attacks. The other item to consider is the interaction of the Smart Meters to the customers smart phones or tablets through applications.

Utilities must improve the two-way communication with the Smart Grid facilities then work on passing this technology on to their customers. Interoperablity has to be requiredby the utility as different software solutions are brought together to solve the two-way communication issue. Multispeak (multispeak.org) being required is absolutely required to make this interoperablity a reality. We do not have money anymore to spend for software companies to charge the electric utilities for development costs to marry software together initially and every time there is an update to the software or Operating System at the client site.

In the rural electrical utilities there is a need to have both RF (Radio Frequency), FTTH (Fiber To The Home), and Wireless. See the case study of Pulaski Electric System as laid out in an article in PowerGrid International Feb 2011:

Pulaski Electric System (PES) is a Tennessee-based electric utility that combined the reach of radio frequency (RF) technology and the speed of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) to a customer base that spans both urban and rural service areas.

Pulaski implemented a FTTH network in 2007 to provide in town residents and businesses with high-speed Internet access, as well as high-definition video entertainment and high-quality digital phone service. Extending FTTH to remote communities and isolated farms, however, was not practical given the low density of potential subscribers.

For this reason Pulaski selected a system that could operate in both wired and wireless worlds.

A hybrid approach enables Pulaski to use both its FTTH network and 220 MHz RF for rapid and reliable two-way data transport. The utility gets more value from FTTH by using it for triple-play media and as its AMI backbone. Furthermore, it can quickly and easily bring smart grid functionality to customers on the edges of its service territory via the wireless network, where customer service costs are highest. This minimizes truck rolls, removes high-cost reads and ensures that all customers receive the same high level of service, regardless of location.

The wireless RF network provides rural reach and redundancy for the FTTH network, which helps ensure a high system reliability level.

Although the system PES chose operates in both Internet protocol and RF environments, at its core it is a single network. This simplifies integration to other critical applications, provides a comprehensive coverage solution and facilitates migration from RF to FTTH as the fiber network is expanded. It also gives PES the freedom to evolve according to its own business goals and operational priorities.

As a result, PES avoids the costs and complexities that would have resulted from deploying, managing and maintaining two separate AMI networks.

The hybrid network offers the scalability and capacity that will enable PES to implement demand response, energy-efficiency programs and in- home displays to whatever degree is desired without retooling the entire network—or worse still, starting over from scratch.

Communication to the smart meters is not only crucial for Outage Management but also for analysis of the current data model of the electrical facilities. Up-to-date readings fromthe meters allows the utilities to do current day of or the day after load allocations,voltage drops, fault currents, etc. will rely on information coming not from the smartmeters but also the SCADA systems, and in the future transformers, reclosers, capacitors,and other elements on the electrical system.

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