MANY OF TODAY'S UTILITIES continue to build their business cases for advanced metering systems based solely on automated meter reading (AMR). For large utilities with millions of customers, the cost savings from automating the meter reading process for monthly billing purposes can be significant. However, at smaller utilities like Shawano Municipal Utilities (SMU; Shawano, Wisconsin, U.S.), which serves less than 10,000 customers, we need to look beyond just automating monthly meter reading to improve business operations and the bottom line. We need systems that will allow us to improve operational efficiencies and system reliability, and to deliver the best customer service possible.

Since the early 1990s, SMU has been using an AMR system for reading load profile on approximately 30 of its large industrial customers (over 200-kW demand). Additionally, we were collecting hourly load-profile readings from our substations for load projections. Even though we were using walk-/drive-by fixed-network AMR technology for meter reading in our residential service areas, it was clear that this technology would no longer meet our business case in 10 years.

A SYSTEM TO MEET OUR NEEDS

After completing a preliminary benefits analysis, SMU concluded that there were several compelling reasons to implement a new meter reading strategy using an advanced AMR solution. However, SMU wanted the new system to offer more than just monthly meter reads for billing. Specifically, we wanted a system that would allow us to:

  • Implement a system that was cost-effective, viable and easy to deploy

  • Reduce the meter reading costs for monthly billing

  • Reduce meter reading errors

  • Make on-demand meter reads for move ins/move outs

  • Realize additional benefits from the information and data the metering system provides, such as: collecting demand data, identifying low-voltage areas and analyzing the distribution system.

After looking at several AMR systems, we found that Elster Electricity's EnergyAxis System was the most cost-effective and viable smart metering system available on the market. Not only was it competitively priced with other AMR systems (that offer much less functionality), it was easy to deploy and did not require special people to install the system. We used our meter readers and meter department personnel to install the entire system, so we did not incur any additional expenses to deploy the system. Since the EnergyAxis System's communication network is built into the REX meters and A3 ALPHA meter collectors, we did not need to install additional modules or infrastructure to deploy the system. The robust two-way communication system is a controlled mesh network that self-configures and self-heals, so all it takes to put the network in place is to install the meters.

A SYSTEM FOR TODAY AND TOMORROW

At SMU, we think that utilities will realize future benefits from having as much information as possible on their service areas and distribution systems. That is why we selected a system that could deliver both the information we need and use today, and that is capable of delivering the information we envision needing in the coming years.

Today, with the EnergyAxis System, we can collect demand data, read the voltage at every service point, and collect information that helps us analyze and improve our distribution system. SMU is part of the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO) energy market, and we envision that we may need to deal with deregulation in the future. So it also made sense to look for a smart metering system with features in place that we can use 5 to 20 years from now, instead of having to replace the system in 10 years. SMU understands that it will be essential to our business to be able to collect more usage data from customers in the future. For example, features such as multitier time-of-use and remote connect/disconnect were important to SMU. We wanted to have the ability to build structured tier rates in the future if we need to, and offer customers more services in the future with on-peak/off-peak rates. Although we do not plan to use the remote connect and disconnect feature immediately, it is nice to have if and when we need it.

This year, we are deploying the EnergyAxis System within the city limits of our service area. In 2006, we plan to expand the system outside of the Shawano city limits and begin integrating water meter reading into the system. When completed, we will have our entire service area — both water and electricity — covered using the EnergyAxis System.

Since installing the EnergyAxis System, we have seen improvements in our existing billing system in a very short time. The system's performance and robustness is impressive; we have been amazed at the transmission distances between meter hops, and the system has exceeded our expectations. Plus the technical support and training we receive from Elster has been excellent. The integration of the metering automation server (MAS) with our existing billing software was easy and we were using the system for billing within two months from the start of the project.

Looking into the future, SMU expects to see additional cost savings with our smart metering system. We expect to be able to offer our customers incentives to participate in various service programs. Utilizing the EnergyAxis smart metering system will enable us to use TOU data for more complex rate structures for on-peak/off-peak energy usage, plus much more. This will enable SMU to offer our customers more choices in how they use energy. Shawano Municipal Utilities is creating a model of how any utility company can position themselves with smart meter technology to stay competitive in changing energy markets.

ANDY ONESTI became the general manager of Shawano Municipal Utilities (SMU) in Shawano, Wisconsin, in July 2004. Prior to taking the GM position, Onesti was the electrical engineer for SMU since 1992. Onesti holds BSEE and MSEE degrees from the University of Wisconsin — Madison and is a member of the IEEE. aonesti@shawano.com