A Key to the Utility of the Future

Aug. 7, 2006

About the author: Wendy Lohkamp is director of Meter Data Management Solutions for Itron, Inc. She can be reached at 800/635-5461.

As utilities have added customers over the years, managers look for ways to gather meter data more efficiently. If the utility distributes multiple products—electricity, water, natural gas—or serves a diverse service area, multiple types of meter reading solutions may have been installed. Today, utilities may have tens or even hundreds of thousands or millions of meters from multiple manufacturers generating data that is gathered in multiple ways.

The large investment in gathering meter data has helped billing departments keep pace with change and growth, but now other groups within utilities are asking for more data. Or, perhaps utilities are looking for ways to share the operational costs of deploying automatic meter reading (AMR) across the multiple groups that can all gain some advantage with this data. Ideally, utilities need one simple way to collate and analyze all meter data for forecasting, planning, energy delivery, maintenance and more to help keep the system reliable, profitable and competitive.

Properly managed meter data enables utilities to predict system load and usage to avoid imbalances and reduce off-network purchases. Data analysis can help pinpoint over- or under-utilized infrastructure, improve system throughput, speed service restoration after outages and more. Properly managed data means the utility can deliver more value to customers and shareholders for less overall cost. Data itself becomes an asset.

Although this may sound like technology from a high-tech future, meter data management really just supports the basic and sound operation of energy delivery. It enables operational efficiency, cost reduction, and meeting current and future goals with fewer resources. Meter data helps utility leaders make good decisions, deploy new supporting technologies and get the most return out of their existing base of assets.

Case for meter data management

Typically, organizations that are considering installing meter data management systems have some or all of these traits in common:

  • They have multiple users or groups (internal and external) that need access to meter data;
  • They have silos of data and systems that add support cost and make combining data for analyses nearly impossible;
  • They have spent copious resources on patching, integrating and manipulating multiple source systems and do not want to maintain this integration or these systems in the future;
  • They read multiple makes of meters by multiple systems such as MV-90, mobile collection, fixed network and handheld;
  • They have experienced issues with data quality and want a solution where data can be cleaned, maintained and audited in one central location;
  • They have users demanding adhoc access to data to perform analysis but no mechanism available to supply that data;
  • They have struggled through large enterprise-wide software implementations in the past and do not want to build another system from scratch;
  • They have outsourced IT departments and do not want to maintain applications;
  • They have individual departments seeking their own costly solutions after realizing they cannot get what they need from existing applications;
  • They have decided not to outsource key strategic information because they do not want an ASP/hosting model where they pay for access to their own data; and
  • They have realized their current system’s potential for errors and confusion, especially as the frequency of data collection and intervals increase.

What do these characteristics mean in the real world of energy delivery? The following are three scenarios.

Implementing AMR

Advances in metering and communication technologies con-tinue to provide a wide range of options for AMR.

Today, no single vendor can offer a solution that covers all terrains, territories and meter reading issues. Utilities may have multiple AMR solutions within the same territory. Adding a new AMR technology may fix a meter-reading problem, but it can also affect existing systems and processes and create a separate silo of data within the organization.

AMR can provide a much higher frequency of data as meter reading moves from monthly to daily or even hourly. While the data is valuable in many ways, the shear growth in data introduces concerns about the volume, scalability and processing power of existing systems. In particular, many current residential billing systems are not structured to handle more than one reading per billing cycle. Billing is structured around routes, but with the introduction of fixed network AMR, routes may no longer be necessary or meaningful.

How can utilities interface these best-of-breed collection systems to existing collection, billing and IT systems?

Managing multiple technologies

Mergers and acquisitions have left utilities with multiple technologies that do the same thing. Newly formed utilities may have multiple collection systems from multiple vendors. Data from different vendors and organizations are stored separately, thus requiring synchronization, manipulation and maintenance of multiple systems. The different streams of data may be incompatible, requiring that EBCDIC data be transformed to ASCII (or vice versa). Or, XML, flat files and delimited files must be parsed to find the common data elements. Each solution must exchange data with other solutions, creating an unmanageable web of interfaces between billing departments, meter shops, field service organizations, outage management teams and more.

How can an organization undergoing transformation tame all this technology?

Regulatory compliance

Recent corporate accounting and securities scandals have brought additional regulatory requirements to an energy sector already familiar with compliance issues. In particular, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act mandates an unprecedented level of financial auditing and transparency. Under the act, public companies have new requirements governing whether financial statements are accurate, controls are adequate, disclosures are timely, and documents and data supporting the financial assertions are controlled.

How can an energy supplier who sells multiple products at multiple rates to multiple customer classes, and collects the sales information through multiple systems, make sure the accounting and financial reporting is accurate, controlled and timely?

Characteristics of a solution

These three scenarios point to impending—or ongoing—technological chaos for energy providers. How can providers tame the chaos?

Meter data management solutions provide a single data repository that can gather data from multiple metering systems and then supply that data to multiple applications such as billing, forecasting, customer service, system operation and maintenance. Mapping multiple metering systems to multiple business applications through a single repository organizes the meter data to help run business more efficiently.

Good meter data management solutions adapt to the situation, accommodating the unique combination of meters, meter-reading technologies, billing systems and analytic needs. They also help find ways to reduce costs, increase revenues and deliver more value to customers.

The core of meter data management is a single database or repository of customer, meter and reading data. Data exports and application programming interfaces push or pull data between the repository and the multiple destinations that rely on meter data. This helps ensure that consistent processes are applied to a single set of data. Such processes include calculation services (aggregations and calculations on interval data performed in a controlled and consistent fashion); validation, estimation and editing (confirmation that collection systems and meters are functioning properly); best read rules; and more.

Audit logs record all changes and corrections to data, including the who, how and why of edits. Import logs track if any data were not captured successfully. All versions of, and changes to, data are retained for as long as needed for historical perspective or regulatory compliance. The data is safeguarded by both data- and role-based security.

How would such meter data management systems, which exist today, respond to the three scenarios posed earlier?

AMR implementation featuring meter data management. When an energy provider using meter data management adds a new AMR system, that system needs to be interfaced only with the meter data management system. The meter data management system then handles interfacing the AMR system to other functions throughout the organization. This greatly simplifies the introduction or expansion of AMR systems.

Multiple technology integration featuring meter data management. When a merged utility must integrate multiple technologies, meter data management can serve as the focal point. Instead of requiring that every system communicate with every other system, all systems need only to communicate with the meter data management system, which then handles all the data interfaces.

Regulatory compliance featuring meter data management. Because all sales data is stored in a single, auditable repository that logs all changes and who made them, corporate auditors and regulators can have a high degree of transparency and confidence with financial statements based upon that sales data.

In the end, meter data management systems create a common view of energy data and decrease data integration complexity. As a result, data managers can focus more on meeting the strategic needs in their organizations, thereby providing value-added services while making end users more self-sufficient.

Strategies for implementing meter data management

While each case will be slightly different because each organization’s collection of disparate meters, meter reading and data processing systems is different, implementation of meter data management solutions usually includes these steps:

  1. Generate enterprise-wide buy-in for a meter data management solution. The new system will have enterprise-wide ramifications, so the entire enterprise needs to support the implementation. As seen from just the three scenarios already presented, for nearly every department in the utility, a business case can be made that accessible, accurate meter data can improve operations, reduce costs and create new services.
  2. Identify all sources, destinations and formats for meter data. Interview people in every corner of the enterprise. There will probably be more data sources and needs than imagined.
  3. Identify the specific meter data management vendor or solution that will fit the enterprise’s needs.
  4. Once the meter data management solution is initially installed, get data from disparate collection systems to flow into the new, single data repository.
  5. Once meter data can flow into the repository, get data to flow from the repository to a data-dependent application such as billing or forecasting.
  6. Phase-in support for other users of meter data such as outage management, distribution planning, revenue assurance and forecasting.

Benefits of meter data management

In addition to the three scenarios discussed previously, meter data management enables a whole host of other services that are beneficial to energy providers and their customers. The following are some examples.

Outage management. A single repository of meter data greatly eases the management of power outage data. With AMR systems that provide outage or restore information, a meter data management system can record outage start and restore times; organize events by meter, customer, fixed network collector and transformer; push alerts to external outage management systems; and filter and present meter events to identify problem areas. Having a central system provides standard interfaces to receive events from AMR systems and standard event codes, regardless of meter or collection system type. It insulates outage management systems from having to understand the details of how meter-reading systems report events.

All of these abilities benefit both the energy provider and its customers by verifying power outages before sending field personnel to investigate (potentially saving money), diminishing revenue loss with early warning of problems from meters and accurately counting outage durations for important public service scores.

Distribution planning and reliability. By combining historical customer data from meter data management with historical weather data and transformer capacity ratings, electricity providers can start to predict how transformers might perform under extreme weather conditions. Pinpointing a potentially overloaded transformer before it fails has several benefits. Crews can fix problems during scheduled work hours, saving the utility overtime. Utilities don’t lose revenue because of a disruption to service. Customers enjoy continuous service; for the sick and the elderly, this can be critical during extreme weather conditions. Likewise, pinpointing potentially underutilized transformers means utilities have the opportunity to right-size their equipment in an orderly fashion. This saves on labor and equipment costs while possibly expanding the capacity of the distribution system.

Revenue assurance. By relying on a central repository of historic meter data, analytics can pinpoint usage patterns that might indicate meter defect, meter tampering or theft of service. If a customer’s energy usage remains abnormally low during heat waves, cold snaps, or before and after outages, then the meter might be malfunctioning. If more energy is flowing past distribution points than is being billed for, then it’s possible that someone is stealing service. Without meter data management, this type of revenue-assuring analysis is nearly impossible.

Even though this means more revenue to the utility, it also means better service and better costs to the customers. Utilities recapturing revenue from those people stealing services don’t need to raise their rates to cover stolen services. In some parts of the world, theft of service accounts for 20% or more of power consumption. Tamper detection can make a huge difference to energy providers and to the vast majority of honest, paying customers.

Forecasting and curtailment. By applying advanced statistical modeling to the historic data stored in meter data management systems, utilities can generate highly accurate forecasts of future energy demand. Balancing supply and demand is the heart of a reliable and stable energy delivery system. Solid, accurate forecasts remove the guesswork from daily operations and long-term planning, lowering both risk and cost. Purchasing last-minute power on the spot market can be very expensive. Accurate and timely forecasts also provide energy intelligence that is directly applicable to infrastructure construction and maintenance, pricing contracts, supply schedules, load profiles, rate design and energy efficiency.

With the ability to predict times of peak demand, utilities and their customers can then form partnerships to reduce extreme loads, thus maintaining a reliable and affordable supply of power. Power-intensive C&I customers can voluntarily reduce their consumption during peak times in exchange for payments or credit from the utility.

Shaping the future

Organizations that undergo the transformative process of adopting meter data management solutions start to realize efficiencies and savings as soon as the solutions come on line. Many of them continue to find ways to earn a return on their investment in meter data management through new and innovative ways to apply meter data throughout the organization. At that point, meter data is truly shaping the utility of the future.

About the Author

Wendy Lohkamp

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