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Low-Tech vs. High-Tech AMP: The 21st Century IT Debate

Some want to cut costs, others to improve service.
Fortnightly Magazine - September 15 2002

utility has is that when you have a big storm come through-we are relying on customers to call us and tell us that they are out. This type of system would be able to basically tell us every home that is out when it goes out, so we could do a better job of trending and looking for patterns for outages, and for better dispatch of the right crews," she says.

For example, she says that if the company knows only one home is out, it will send a serviceman. But if every home in a particular neighborhood is out, the company might send a different type of crew. In addition, Progress would like to be able to tell the customer that the utility is aware of the outage and has an estimated response time, before the customer ever picks up the phone.

Another functionality that has intrigued Progress Energy is the ability to use AMR to connect and disconnect remotely, much the same as the telephone company does. "That is something that we have always wanted to be able to do as a customer service, but we haven't had that capability."

Broadway believes that many of these services will drive costs out of the system, by: 1) being able to resolve a customer bill question on the first call; 2) being able to connect and disconnect instantly for nonpayment; 3) responding to outages more efficiently; and 4) reducing revenue loss from meter tampering.

Furthermore, a high-tech AMR system would allow Progress Energy to offer new services down the road, such as smart thermostats in customers' homes to help with energy management.

Eric Miller, vice-president of product strategy at Silicon Energy, says radio-controlled thermostats are gaining in popularity where they are tried.

In fact, Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and San Diego Gas & Electric have teamed up with Silicon Energy as part of a program that allows the utility to change the thermostat for a few hours during peak time. The customer can get on the Internet and change the temperature as well. "People mostly like the thermostats. They like the Internet and they like the control. The dollars and cents have not been the major factor-and the program has been extremely popular."

Meanwhile, Progress Energy's AMR implementation will probably be a combination of technologies, Broadway says. "Our territory is a good combination of what I call metropolitan (very urban areas) and rural areas. A fixed network may do well in densely populated areas, but you may have to go to a different kind of solution for rural areas. We are not sure yet-we are still going through all the data."

Broadway says that improving customer service drives the implementation as well as operational efficiencies, and is well aware that there will be some extra costs involved initially in adopting high-tech AMR. When considering AMR solutions, Broadway cautions that utilities should look at the entire cost, including the vendor quotes, system integration, and communication system costs.

Integration: The Key to the AMR Cost-Cutting Game

Whether utilities select high-tech or low-tech AMR,