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Automated Meter Reading:
Two StrategiesThe question is whether to own or lease,
but each route offers its own advantages.
With deregulation nipping at their heels, utilities are looking for ways to gain and maintain
customers. Aggressive utilities are seeking new customers outside of their service territories and offering competitive prices, new products, and new services. Other utilities are refocusing their efforts on marketing and, more important, customer service.
Obviously, generating revenue and saving money stand out. In that spirit, many utilities have cut costs by replacing meter-reading personnel with automated meter-reading (AMR) technologies, which offer other advantages: outage reporting, tamper detection, remote connections and disconnections, demand billing, two-way communications, time-of-use (TOU) rates, and real-time pricing (RTP). The most common form of AMR transmits information by radio frequency, and employs hand-held devices and a drive-by system known as mobile radio frequency (mobile RF). Fixed meter-reading network systems, another option, use mounted radio transmitters, which are said to improve service.
Many utilities are experimenting with the more advanced technologies, but some are only now getting their feet wet.
o o o
South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. (SCE&G) runs a pilot AMR program, having installed 2,500 new meter units to date. SCE&G wants to avoid the expense of reading meters manually, especially the frequently high union labor costs. "We look at AMR as a strategy for dealing with deregulation. It helps to differentiate us from being just another electric commodity. Providing improved service and additional value-added services helps to distinguish [SCE&G] from other competitors," says Jim Kirby, manager of distribution engineering services.
In addition to meter reading, SCE&G offers outage reporting, tamper detection, and load profiling. Soon the utility hopes to offer TOU billing, appliance monitoring, home security, and demand billing. AMR project services are currently provided under SCE&G's basic residential tariff, but additional services such as home security and appliance monitoring will be offered for an additional charge, much like call waiting and 3-way dialing.
Kirby says the pilot has led the company to improve its marketing efforts. It now gives additional training to customer service representatives to prepare them as quality-service consultants. Their job will entail finding out what customers want, need, and expect, so that SCE&G can capitalize on service.
By mid-summer, about 10 months into its pilot project, Union Electric (UE) had installed nearly 50,000 wireless, automated metering units. Another 75,000 were scheduled for early fall, and a total of 800,000 by 1999. UE
contracted for the pilot program with CellNet Data Systems, which employs cellular radio and computer database technology. (See, "Utilities Bullish on Meter-reading Technology, PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY, Jan. 15, 1995, p. 29.)
"AMR is just the tip of the iceberg," says Ray Wiesehan, superintendent of special projects at Union Electric. "A great deal of potential is there. The technology is such that it lends itself to a whole new arena . ... [Technology] will dramatically change the way utilities offer value-added services. Customers will see a
180-percent different outlook as the network is put into place."
UE already offers enhanced features such as outage notification,