If you ask your neighbor to describe the local electric utility, I doubt you would hear the words “technologically sophisticated.” Utilities are plagued with a public perception that doesn’t necessary match reality. However, for the past decade, utilities have been experiencing a metamorphosis—using state-of-the-art technology and big data to automate processes and optimize operations.

Much of this can be traced back to one major technology advancement—Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI).  After deploying AMI, utilities could remotely read smart meters, and in the process, reduce truck rolls and labor costs accordingly.  Meter reading was the foundation for AMI’s business case. But there is more to AMI. 

Here are a few ways that an AMI network can be used for more than simply reading an electric meter:

  1. Distribution Automation (DA)
    Isolating fault locations and restoring electricity is table stakes for any DA operator. With DA, you are able to actively monitor and manage the grid by selectively placing intelligent communication devices on the grid. This reduces the severity of outages and provides higher system reliability while letting you get more value out of assets such as reclosers, capacitor banks, voltage regulators and more. The time it takes for a command to execute and for the operator to see that it has occurred is critical.  Latency is the enemy of DA.  When reviewing AMI networks the roundtrip command duration is something to watch.
  2. Phase Detection 
    By sending a time-synched signal to specific meter groups, the utility can then map it to a reference meter.  The data is then compared to the distribution system and anomalies are identified giving the utility a chance to balance their system.  There are other ways of accomplishing phase detection, but this is the most straightforward and direct method. Depending on your AMI network, this might or might not be available.  
  3. Demand Response
    It’s the holy grail. Utilities are constantly searching for an easy way to reduce load during peak periods.  AMI might not be the perfect solution, but it can make a dent.  The traditional way to lower your peak load is through demand response programs that combine AMI with load control devices to remotely govern items such as air conditioners, hot water heaters, pool pumps and irrigation systems during peak events.  These programs do affect load, but they also suffer from a customer participation problem. The small billing discount often does not incentivize customers enough to hand control of the air conditioner (or other appliance) over to the utility.
  4. Behavioral Demand Response
    There are other, more creative methods of influencing peak demand through AMI. One such way is to combine a time-of-use rate structure with text/phone messages. During periods of peak demand, utilities can alert customers of the higher energy rate—essentially appealing to their pocketbook.  By using simple behavioral models, utilities can directly impact energy usage.
  5. Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR)
    With CVR programs, your network monitors voltage on strategically placed bell weather meters. During peak load events, the utility can lower the voltage incrementally without impacting customers.  This is often seen as a great solution because it can be implemented independently of the end user. Wake Electric, a co-op with 42,000 endpoints in North Carolina, estimates their potential savings at more than $650,000 per year.
  6. Transformer Utilization 
    By analyzing meter data, it’s possible to give visibility into transformers that are at risk of failing or are being underutilized. In either case big data from smart meters can protect your grid assets. With machine learning, this same data can be further analyzed to recognize signs of impending transformer failure—prolonging the life of your assets.
  7. Photovoltaic Visibility (PV) 
    Solar panels are dropping in cost and utility customers are noticing.  Solar has an average annual growth rate of 59% and shows no sign of decreasing. The problem arises when homeowners install solar without informing the utility. This presents a safety hazard and can adversely affect the life of many grid assets. Smart meter manufacturers have found a creative solution to this problem. Rather than deducting the outgoing solar energy from the customer’s bill, it is added to the monthly tally. This quickly gets your customers attention and allows you to know when unknown energy is being added to the grid. 
  8. Smart Lighting
    The beauty of smart lighting isn’t solely the ability to control lumens, it’s the first step to transforming your community into a smart community. Street lighting is the ideal infrastructure for adding smart sensors that have the ability to monitor weather, traffic or even detect the sound of gunshots. Depending on your AMI infrastructure, transforming your city into a smart city can be as easy as simply replacing the control module on your street lights.
  9. Pre-Pay
    Launching pre-pay is a great way to accomplish many quick wins with one program.  With pre-pay you’ll reduce bad debt, give customers more payment options and, as an added bonus, decrease load. Pre-pay programs are wildly popular with customers and with utilities. However, you’ll need to have remote connect/disconnect enabled smart meters to build an optimal program. 
  10. Gas/Water Meters
    Whether you want to be a good neighbor to the municipality down the road, or you see this as a revenue opportunity, your AMI network has the potential to support another system. The ability to channelize data is not necessary, but is optimal for building out a network that handles water and/or gas metering.
  11. Energy Disaggregation
    By analyzing high-resolution smart meter data, utilities can separate the energy signal into appliance specific data. On a positive note, utilities are able to let customers know that their refrigerator is going to fail—before it does.  However, this is not without controversy.  Privacy concerns being first and foremost.  Alternatively, this insight into energy signal data can provide immense savings to commercial and industrial customers without the potential for controversy.
  12. Smart Home Integration
    After years of hype, the age of the smart home is finally upon us. With the commercial success of Amazon Echo and Google Home, consumers are now integrating smart components into their houses.  This is a tremendous opportunity for customer engagement. Zigbee equipped smart meters have the capability to integrate with some smart home devices, giving customers easy access and visibility into their energy usage.

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Using an AMI network for simply billing misses the point. By realizing how to better use meter data, and the underlying AMI network, utilities can give customers better service while improving operational efficiency.  Whether the public knows it or not, utilities are technologically sophisticated.