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Making the Case for AMI Part 7: The Right Decision Takes Careful Consideration

This is the seventh and final installment of Making the Case for Advanced Metering Infrastructure.

Deploying an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system is a large investment and commitment to a technology road map that will impact utility operations for many years. Making the proper choice here can either help or hinder future distribution system improvements.

Let’s wrap up the series with a quick review of the basics.

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Justifying and selecting an AMI solution can be a bit puzzling. Make sure everything fits by defining your long-term needs for the system.

Utilities are faced with a large amount of options and vendors when defining their technology road map. Fast, secure and reliable meter data—as provided by a suitable AMI system—is crucial to build a flexible and scalable distribution automation plan.

All of the technologies I mentioned throughout this series risk failing to deliver on the promise of the smarter grid if the solution is built on unreliable or intermittent meter data.

There are numerous considerations to be made when choosing an AMI system, but most critical to the mission are the following:

Security

Any AMI system exposing vulnerabilities to outside attack are patently dangerous. Security vulnerabilities have the potential to expose the utility to both legal and financial liabilities in addition to jeopardizing the utility’s number one priority of providing customers with reliable and quality power. Look for a vendor with experience in advanced encryption techniques and who has (or partners with) a security technology capable of actively securing AMI or SCADA networks. It’s not enough to secure only the office side of the network.

Also, consult the Department of Energy’s Cybersecurity Procurement Language for Energy Delivery Systems and work with a provider with specific knowledge of protecting utility networks such as SCADA and AMI systems.

Scalability

An AMI system not capable of growing with the utility, either in size or regulatory requirements, can wind up painting distribution system designers into a technological corner.

Seek out AMI vendors with a demonstrated history of serving large, small, rural and municipal utilities with their newest technology. Keep in mind… some vendors will speak of a long history of deployments of all types and sizes while not mentioning the small number of customers using the technology they’re selling you.

Flexibility

You only have to consider how drastically mobile phones and wireless networks have improved in the past five years to understand how quickly technology changes. It’s important to evaluate AMI vendors under the same light. Remember, in 2009 AT&T and Verizon were still only rolling out 3G technology and have since leapt forward into 4G.

Will your AMI network be everything you want and need in 2019? Look for a system design that safeguards against an entire system upgrade at every meter if the long-haul technology becomes obsolete or suffers FCC spectrum reorganization.

Usability

The most powerful AMI system is essentially inadequate if usable interfaces to the meter data do not exist.

Utilities should steer clear of vendors providing proprietary or nonstandard technologies that could wind up holding the utility hostage to one specific vendor. Equally troublesome are the cost-prohibitive integrations between your AMI system and your other applications.

When evaluating an AMI system, get pricing for integrations to any other system you have or plan to purchase before you buy the AMI system. As previously stated, high price “gotchas” often show up down the road when selecting the low-bid vendor. This may or may not be common knowledge, but it is a common practice.

Also consider whether you actually need an MDM or GIS solution in addition to your AMI system. The more modern AMI solutions have some of these features already baked in.

Reliability

Let’s face it… smart meters are sometimes maligned with safety and privacy hyperbole. Local members of the “tin foil hat club” will be eager to grasp any bad press they can get their hands on (earned or not) and run with it. Choosing a meter/network vendor with a solid history of safety and support is absolutely vital.

Every manufacturer in the world has had an issue with bad parts or components at one time or another. The real question is, “Did they hide it or did they deal with it?” Fundamental design issues are another issue completely. Repeated issues with product delivery or quality could indicate problems in design or product management.

Choosing a vendor with a good reputation for quality, delivery and support will save you many sleepless nights.

In Conclusion

What’s best for your neighbor utility’s ratepayers and members isn’t always best for yours. No one system is all things to every utility, and each vendor has their own strengths and weaknesses. It is up to the utility to weigh each facet of each solution and prioritize must-haves over wants.

Making the case for an AMI investment (and choosing the right one for your utility) is an arduous process. In this series, I’ve attempted to provide a basic, high-level view of both the value and pitfalls of the process as well as future considerations to keep in mind.

This series was intended as a peek from my perspective that draws on my own personal experience. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to follow this series.

For information on how Border States can work with your organization to outline a successful technology road map and meet your energy automation objectives, contact your Border States Account Manager or Application Engineer for details on the full spectrum of product offerings available.

If you’re considering a comprehensive AMI system, make sure you know what questions to ask before it’s too late.