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North Carolina Utility Expects Fewer Service Trips with AMI Platform

By Cheryl Kaften January 16, 2012

Just as ice wagons began to disappear from city streets at the beginning of the 20th Century -- replaced by household refrigerators -- now fewer utility trucks are on the streets, making periodic trips to customers’ homes to read the meters. More than a decade into the 21st Century, they are being replaced by smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure.

This week, in North Carolina, Wake Electric Membership Corporation (Wake Electric) of Wake Forest began implementing a Sensus FlexNet advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system from Raleigh-based Sensus for its members in a seven-county area surrounding the state’s capital of Raleigh. The AMI system is supplanting a single-read drive-by system that has been in service for 10 years.

Wake Electric Membership Corporation is installing smart meters at the homes of its 35,000 customers at the rate of more than 500 per week. The automatic meter reading (AMR) technology will enable the utility to automatically collect consumption, diagnostic, and status data from meters; and transfer that data to a central database for billing, troubleshooting, and analysis. With it, billing can be based on near real-time consumption rather than on estimates based on past or predicted consumption.

The diagnostic and status data will enable the utility to identify the location and scope of a problem before it rolls out a truck to deliver service. Wake Electric will no longer have to rely on its customers to call in and report outages.

Wake Electric Manager of Engineering, Don Bowman, told WRALtechwire, “We can ride a line, ride a current from the headquarters. We’ll be able to tell the crew exactly where to go.”

While the meters are expected to deliver a positive return on investment over an estimated seven years, Bowman said some savings will occur right away.“We will save a lot of minutes a year by dealing faster with outages,” he said.

What’s more, the new AMI platform operates over a secure, wireless network, using licensed spectrum for two-way, dedicated communication to residential electric meters as well as power distribution assets. Sensus will administer the network’s regional network interface (RNI) software as a hosted service, providing Wake Electric with added system redundancy and security. 

According to Bowman, the member-owned utility selected the licensed spectrum FlexNet solution, in part, because unsecured public networks are susceptible to radio frequency interference from power line carriers and wireless sources, particularly in densely populated areas.

“We have large population centers in Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill, very close to airports, the Research Triangle Park hub, universities, and government facilities,” Bowman said. “We felt that going the licensed route gives us the extra measure of security from interference from other systems, as well as greater reliability.”

The Sensus FlexNet system is a secure and robust communications network based on open standards that facilitates interoperability with multiple applications. According to Bowman, the openness of the Sensus system gives Wake Electric the ability to incorporate other applications in its technology roadmap, such as remote monitoring and control of distribution assets, outage management, and prepaid accounts.

The electric cooperative will soon introduce an efficiency program called “Monitor and Manage,” which will offer an online Web portal that enables members to see their monthly, daily, and hourly meter data—and if they wish, to take measures to reduce their electric consumption.

Wake Electric was assisted by the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) — which represents the advanced telecommunications and information technology interests of 1,500 rural utilities and affiliates in 48 states — in specifying and implementing the FlexNet solution, beginning with a pilot project of 225 meters in July 2011. Some 7,000 meters, each packed with a wireless transmitter for two-way communication with Wake Electric, have been installed since October. The $3 million project is expected to be completed by the end of 2012.

In related news, last July, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution designating 2012 as the International Year of Cooperatives. The measure recognizes the vital role cooperatives play in the economic and social well-being of the United States. Specifically, the nation’s 900-plus electric co-ops:

·         Serve about 42 million people in 47 states -- equivalent to 18 million businesses, homes, schools, churches, farms, irrigation systems, and other establishments in 2,500 of 3,141 counties;

·         Employ 70,000;

·         Own assets worth $130 billion; and

·         Own and maintain 2.5 million miles, or 42 percent, of the nation's electric distribution lines, covering three-quarters of the nation's land mass.

Around the world, co-ops boast nearly 1 billion members in more than 90 countries. Close to half of all residents of Finland and Singapore are co-op members; 33 percent in Canada, Honduras, New Zealand, and Norway; and 25 percent in Germany, Malaysia, and the United States.

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO East 2012, taking place Jan. 31-Feb. 3 2012, in Miami, FL. ITEXPO offers an educational program to help corporate decision makers select the right IP-based voice, video, fax and unified communications solutions to improve their operations. It's also where service providers learn how to profitably roll out the services their subscribers are clamoring for – and where resellers can learn about new growth opportunities. For more information on registering for ITEXPO registration click here.

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Cheryl Kaften is an accomplished communicator who has written for consumer and corporate audiences. She has worked extensively for MasterCard Worldwide, Philip Morris USA (Altria), and KPMG, and has consulted for Estee Lauder and the Philadelphia Inquirer Newspapers. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

IoTevolutionworld Contributor

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