GPRS – ‘Point-to-point’ AMR solutions forge ahead

Since Sweden introduced new legislation in 2003 requiring monthly reading of all metering points from 2009, many new entrants from different industries have focused on the AMR challenge. Larger projects have also exposed some weaknesses of the traditional techniques on the market, highlighting the critical importance of issues that may seem insignificant on a smaller scale.

So far, larger projects in Scandinavia have involved PLC and RF solutions with dedicated infrastructure networks, with GSM mostly used for communicating data from the concentrator/collector device back to the host central system. The prevailing commercial terms made GSM a last resort for communicating directly with isolated metering points that are impractical or expensive to reach.

Safeguard your revenue- How secure are your revenue meters?

Hackers, thieves, and the curiously mischievous may try to break into your remote electric utility metering equipment.The best way to protect equipment is to approach meter security from a layered perspective. In a metering environment, security begins with the design of the hardware and firmware platform. Meters with self-testing, high accuracy, and an innovative error detection system provide secure revenue protection.

Solving EBPP adoption challenges

Over 70% of Americans use e-mail regularly, yet an average of only 6% of utility consumers are viewing and paying their bills online. In fact, in almost all industries and market verticals, adoption to online EBPP varies from less than 2% to a maximum of 15% of customers.

The challenge is to identify how to attain a significant number of customers using electronic means to receive and pay their bills. And the answer is simple – stop expecting customers to come to you and start delivering their bills to them.

AMR outage benefits

In Albuquerque we don't have hurricanes, and blizzards only now and then; outages are rare and usually short lived, unless they involve one or more of the transmission lines that transport power from the coal plants in the Northwest corner of the state.

Most outages are caused by lightning or car accidents. A major outage caused by weather would be highly unusual in the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s (PNM’s) territory – very different from the experience of Florida Power and Light (FP&L) where the utility had to recover from three hurricanes within 44 days in late summer 2004. During the restoration, FP&L replaced 11,207 transformers, 13,506 poles, and over 1,700 miles of power lines. When FP&L and PNM evaluate AMR systems in terms of outage restoration and detection, the evaluation process should be very different for the two utilities.

To evaluate the potential benefits of AMR for outage management properly, a utility should document the most important outage ‘use’ cases. For FP&L, a key use case would be restoration after a major hurricane, while for PNM detecting small outages would take precedence. Another use case of interest might be to verify a possible outage reported by only one customer before sending a crew out for repairs. Inherent in the first two use cases is the ability to verify that power has been restored to all customers after the obvious problems have been rectified, such as repairing a main feeder line.

AMR providers have approached outage notification and restoration in different ways, depending on the topology of their networks. Some AMR systems provide direct outage notification by having the endpoint send a message indicating that an outage has occurred. Other systems infer an outage due to a loss of communication with the endpoint, or because the endpoint will not respond to a query from the AMR server. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, but the method used will dictate how the utility works with the AMR system to achieve the outage management benefits.

When are the benefits of AMR real benefits?

[Compos Mentis][March 31, 2006] One of the great dumb philosophy questions is, If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The obvious answer is: “Of course it does. What a stupid question. Next you’re going to ask about that clapping thing.” But philosophy isn’t about the obvious; philosophy is about the devious. The answer, arrived at after much debate (and much drinking) seems to be “no”: Sound is only sound if a person hears it, claim the tipsy pundits.

Well, okay.

If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, but there’s a tape player recording the event, is there sound? A human hasn’t heard it ... yet. Is it sound when the tape is played? What if the tape is never played? What if it’s played backward? What if the person or persons listening are too drunk to pay attention? Does the mere presence of a human at the time of compression and rarefaction denote sound, or do the audio images have to impinge themselves on a human consciousness?” 1

The latest news on AMR

The metering industry has changed significantly since Samuel Gardiner got the first known electric metering patent in 1872. Today, meters are used to measure the consumption of electricity, gas, water, sewage, heat, hot water and other commodities.

Many electricity meters are now all-electronic, as are some gas and water meters. Most have some form of electric circuitry (circuits in gas and water meters are kept alive by long-life batteries). In addition to revenue billing, many electricity, gas and water meters are also used for time-of-use billing as well as for planning and reporting purposes, real-time pricing and emergency response. Electricity meters have grown in sophistication to address load aggregation, energy use diagnostics and power quality, among other uses.

With the introduction of automation in many other industries, it was inevitable that more sophisticated metering would be introduced by the world’s utilities. Primarily through the introduction of control circuits and communication interfaces in meters, basic metering functions have progressed to advanced metering. The widest use of advanced metering has been for automatic meter reading (AMR), though closely related technologies also perform prepay metering, submetering, outage management, and remote disconnect (for both remote shutoff and active load control). By the beginning of 2005, over 100 million AMR units were deployed worldwide and many millions of units have also been deployed for prepayment, submetering and remote disconnect – possibly as high as half the AMR numbers.

The critical intersection of AMR and BPL: Understanding their relationship

Anyone familiar with automatic meter reading (AMR) systems knows that power line communications have proven to be a reliable, efficient and economical approach. The technology serves well for moving metering data between the customer’s meter and the data insertion/extraction point – usually a ‘grey box’ in the utility substation. Several of these systems have been commercially available since the 1970s. The DCSI TWACS™ AMR system and the Cannon Emetcon™ system are examples, joined later by the Hunt Turtle™ and TS-2™ systems.

The so-called ‘ripple’ system for direct control of loads has been used around the world since the 1940s, but today one-way ripple has mostly been supplanted by other technologies. Power line communications for distribution system control were in commercial use by 1949 in vacuum tube versions. Transmission powerline carrier designed for use on transmission lines, and capable of carrying both voice and data, has been widely used for decades.

If power line communications is no newcomer to the electricity utility landscape. What then is all the buzz about Broadband Over Powerline (BPL)?

All the technologies and applications mentioned above are solid, commercially available, well-proven – and very slow by the standards of today’s data communications systems! But slow isn’t necessarily bad. These systems are fast enough for the meter data acquisition job they have to do, and they do that job very well. They operate slowly for a reason. Low data rates require low bandwidths, and low bandwidths can be supported by low carrier frequencies, and low carrier frequencies go much farther and get through transformers much better than high carrier frequencies. This is because low frequencies get closer to the 50 or 60 Hz power frequencies that the distribution system was designed to carry. The PLC AMR systems are designed to economically communicate over many kilometres of overhead and underground distribution wiring, through the distribution transformers, and then down onto the distribution secondaries serving the customer’s premises.

Research and development: Partnering for profit

In this article, Tom Fryers examines the issues and options for acquiring the next generation of products and suggests some guidelines for successful investment in technology.  

It is appropriate that, against a background of rapid change in their markets, meter vendors are re-examining the role and structure of their R&D functions. Timely innovation creates huge opportunities when the business rules change, but harnessing and directing the R&D process to meet these opportunities in the utilities sector presents unique challenges.

Single phase energy metering ICs with automatic digital calibration

The AS8118 and AS8168 1-phase energy metering ICs from austriamicrosystems offer meter manufacturers the most competitive energy metering system solution available on the market. The on-chip programmability of the input and output parameters and on-chip calibration of the new energy metering ICs from austriamicrosystems  ensures a reduced meter system cost.

The AS8118 provides 1-phase instantaneous energy pulse outputs. The AS8168, in addition, provides average energy pulse outputs, which allows for calibration and meter verification between consecutive energy output pulses.

The fast on-chip automatic digital calibration of the AS8118 and AS8168 ICs eliminates the need for a resistor network for meter system calibration. This unique feature not only provides a faster meter production cycle, but also reduces system cost and improves meter reliability through the reduction in external passive components.

In addition, the meter’s input and output parameters can be automatically programmed into the IC during the production cycle, to meet specific utility requirements. These parameters are:

Revenue assurance-utility style

In the deregulated utilities industry, organisations have significant pressures to improve margins while combating competitive forces, in addition to the pressures that their regulated cousins experience from the regulators for operational efficiencies.

Revenue losses in the industry are ranging from 1% to over 25% globally, depending on the environment, maturation, and economic forces. The number most often stated is approximately 12%. If your company’s revenue is ~ $100 million, your losses could go as high as $12 million or perhaps even more.1 Now that is significant!

In today’s environment, a loss of this magnitude is the perfect formula for disaster. At deregulated companies stakeholders would retreat, banks would deny credit, and the competition would have a field day. For regulated companies, the regulators would be ‘displeased’ and make life very difficult when a request for a higher tariff is received.

Declining margins are making investors – who are keen to see improvements on return on investments (ROI) from suppliers, distributors, and retail operations – somewhat nervous. A concerted, comprehensive, committed effort must be placed on reducing losses, enhancing efficiencies, and improving stakeholder wealth. Revenue assurance programmes are a structured approach to identifying areas, systems, and methods where losses are being generated. With top level commitment, significant loss reduction is possible and future savings can be realised.

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