Utilities have it difficult.
Over the past few years, Dominion Energy, National Grid and Eversource Energy have all had their electric Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) plans scrutinized and rejected. Regulators are actively questioning the value of AMI, and the answers are often complicated.
There are many reasons for the AMI scrutiny, but ultimately it was a belief that customers wouldn’t benefit enough to justify the cost. When deploying AMI, many utilities go into the project with operational efficiencies in mind and not from a customer benefit standpoint.
Bringing Visibility to AMI
Do customers benefit from AMI? The answer is a resounding yes. However, often the benefits aren’t so readily seen.
Much of AMI’s value directly relates to how it affects utility operations. Fewer trucks on the road, more grid visibility, improved billing processes, and more. These efficiencies can be quantified, but for the customer, none of the benefits are readily apparent. They aren’t obvious.
For instance, a few months back, we had a minor power outage that lasted roughly three hours. It was a trivial inconvenience to my family’s daily activities, but it made me wonder how instrumental our utility’s AMI system was in limiting the duration of the outage. I believe that the operational efficiencies and grid visibility that it enabled definitely helped us regain power faster. However, most utility customers don’t have the same level of industry knowledge as I do. They see it as a power outage and don’t realize that without AMI, they may have gone without power for an extended period of time.
Educating the public about AMI’s effect on grid operations needs to happen. Utilities need to simplify and optimize the most critical customer touchpoint they have—billing. This manifests itself in a few different ways but primarily falls into two buckets: convenience and energy savings.
Consumer expectations are vastly different now than they were even ten years ago. With the rise of smartphones and the real-time transfer of information, consumers expect more. There is an expectation of immediacy and personalization.
Here are five ways that electric utilities can use smart meters to build astounding customer engagement:
- Personalized Billing
Giving customers the option to schedule a billing date that is convenient to them is just one way to personalize billing. Other approaches could include leveling bills over a 12-month period or providing customers with prepay options. With both options, customers can conveniently work within their budget and have a better idea of their energy usage. Several large investor-owned utilities have launched full-scale programs over the past few years.
- Automated Alerts
Open up communication channels with automated alerts. For example, in the case of a power outage, utilities can send out proactive text messages informing customers of the outage. This limits the number of incoming calls while also letting your customers know that the utility is aware of the situation. Ideally, utilities can take this one level further by giving customers an estimate of when service will resume.
- Web Portals
Giving customers visibility into their energy usage is achievable by integrating near real-time AMI data and a web portal. The ability to set threshold usage alarms and show customers how their energy consumption and costs change daily is a step in the right direction. Additionally, by linking the web portal with automated text alerts, customers can be nudged even further to save energy.
- Time-of-Use Programs
Simply put, customers pay more during periods of high demand and less during off-peak hours. By educating customers and informing them when it’s the best time to wash the laundry or run the dishwasher, customers can save money. Although there’s always controversy anytime a rate change is proposed, the trend towards utilities implementing time-of-use programs for customer energy savings is here. The data from AMI helps utilities develop plans that support the entire customer base.
- Conservation Voltage Reduction
Utilities have used demand response programs to reduce load for many years. Usually, customers get a monetary incentive in exchange for the utility to have control over an air conditioning unit or a hot water heater. The not-so-secret problem with these plans is that customers don’t like it when their air conditioner is turned off during a heatwave. The beauty of conservation voltage reduction programs is that utility customers don’t even realize that it is happening. By using the AMI network to monitor voltage at bellwether meters, utilities can safely and reliably adjust the levels across the grid—and pass those energy savings to the customer.
It’s the Public Utility Commissions job to regulate utilities and act as a consumer advocate. Questioning the value of AMI is part of it. It’s also the job of utilities and vendors to actively implement existing features, develop innovative new solutions, and fully educate the public on the many benefits that AMI brings. With the help of these different groups, AMI can transition into a smart utility network.