The growth of technology within the utilities industries in recent times has thrown the topics of smart grid and AMI to the forefront of discussion. Alliant Energy has carefully negotiated these technological changes and has chosen 2008 as the time to begin the first stage of implementation of its new metering structure.
For Barbara Siehr, VP of Customer Services, AMI and its relation to the customer is her main focus. “We define it as having a metering system that collects time-differentiated energy usage via a networking system, providing us with the opportunity to have knowledge about our customer’s usage patterns right up to the customer meter,” she explains. With this knowledge, Alliant Energy is able to provide different rate options for its customers on a more regular or real-time basis, and create tariffs accordingly.
In the spring of this year, Alliant Energy began implementing AMI in one of its district areas, Beaver Dam Winsconsin, supplied by its subsidiary company, Winsconsin Power & Light (WP&L). “We wanted to begin in an area that had a really good mix of our total service territory,” says Siehr. “Beaver Dam has a mix of gas-only customers, electric-only customers, a combination of electric and gas customers, and also the variation of residential, small commercial and large industrial settings.”
Siehr describes the benefits of AMI provided by this initial implementation, for both customer and provider, as the ability to view and control billing data, enabling two-way communication with the meter. This communication with customers allows utility companies, large and small, to be far more efficient. “We are now working through the capability of billing customers on this very real time data availability,” she says. “It helps us look at our system from a financial and operational viable perspective, allowing us to make much better investment decisions in the future.” The data will provide Alliant Energy with the technological ability to forecast, and efficiently provide for, energy usage.
This communication provides custmers with control of their own data, providing benefits in terms of both energy efficiency and cost. Rather than the previous method of estimated meter readings, Alliant Energy looks to a time when they will be able to precisely calculate energy usage and provide tariff costs according to the information, with customer focus in mind. “This will allow customers to better utilize their energy choices, not necessarily to use as much energy, although this is an option for an energy efficiency perspective, but in terms of when they make their energy choices. I’m sure that in the near future, there will be more tariff options and more opportunities for customers to choose a rate that best fits their lifestyle, and allows them to then manage what will ultimately be rising costs.”
Siehr points to the lack of power plant building within the industry in the last 20 to 30 years, adding: “There will be a lot of building going on, which will raise costs for customers, and in order to manage their own costs they need some flexibility. Without AMI, you just can’t give it to them.”
Siehr admits that Alliant has faced challenges during Phase I of the transformation from AMR to AMI. “One of the things that we were concerned about and still have in front of us for both of our utilities is the capability to use old customer information systems (CIS) that hold all of our billing data, and integrate them into this very new technology.” For Siehr, the concern is not so much the completion of the new system, but as she reiterates, “the marrying of the old to the new”.
To overcome the potential problem of technological incompatibility, Siehr explains that Alliant has selected a specific vendor to ensure a merging of the two. “A meter data management system (MDMS) has been created to make sure that the real-time data from the meter can come into the black box, and then be processed in such a way so it can be fed into our billing system, and be understood within our current billing capabilities.” is the company is then able to process the information generated from the new technology and incorporate into the old, to ensure a smooth and gradual exchange from AMR to AMI.
With Phase I reaching its completion, what does the future hold for Alliant in terms of moving further toward full implementation of AMI? “We have approval from our board of directors, assuming that we meet our financial and operational criteria with this first phase, to move forward through our entire service territory, and our timeframe to be fully implemented by 2011.” With the completion and approval of Phase I in Beaver Dam , Phase II is expected to launch throughout the remainder of the WP&L service territory toward the latter end of 2008.
Siehr explains that the variant AMR technologies that have emerged during the last 10 years and have meant that Allian’ts decision to stall in applying new AMR systems was the right one. “It’s one of the smartest things we did. In the last several years, the trend has been established to go from AMR, which was nothing more than a drive-by system that replaced meter readings, to a more intelligent grid system with AMI.”
The company has not been too hasty, however, in adopting this new approach: “ Until we were convinced that the technology was as reliable for gas meters as it is for electric, it made no sense to change the method for reading,” Siehr adds. “Alliant, unlike many companies, has not implemented an AMR program in the last 10 years. Still using meter readers to do physical monthly reads was more cost effective considering the dual nature of the majority of their service territory.
“Too much of our service territory has electric and gas so the change had to occur for both customer classes at the same time. Starting new and not trying to improve an old AMR system has worked out very well for us.”
She re-emphasises that, to ensure that implementation occurs smoothly, the old and the new must be effectively joined. “It provides an opportunity for us not to prematurely retire an AMR system and go right into the newer technology.”
Alliant has not abolished the AMR system-house meter readings, which are still very much in use, but instead is quietly waiting to observe the pilot results and ensure an effective continuation of the adoption of AMI.
Barbara Siehr is VP of Customer Services at Alliant Energy. Prior to her current position, Siehr was Vice President of Customer Operations. She has also served as Vice President of Financial Planning and Strategic Projects, Managing Director of Operations, and Director of Gas Engineering, as well as holding positions in operations management, sales and marketing, and customer service.