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Advanced Metering Infrastructure Special Report: Where's the Beef?

What do customers get from AMI investments?

Fortnightly Magazine - September 2007

access monthly, daily, and hourly usage on the Web.

To date, with rare exceptions, utilities with AMI have not added detailed usage information to customer bills. The focus is on utility Web sites, for a couple of reasons. One reason is the general enthusiasm for high-tech—not limited to utilities—noted above.

Another is that fewer decisions have to be made about what data to present and how: the Web allows a wide variety of graphs, tables, and charts, easily selectable by the user. Printing data with a bill necessarily would be far more limited—and require utilities to prioritize the new information onto a limited space. These are difficult decisions because the options are so many, and the costs of subsequent changes so high.

A third reason is cost. The short-term cost of posting data on the Web is relatively low, both in terms of a percentage of total AMI costs and in terms of organizational change. Utility Web sites are built and operated mostly independent of other utility information technology (IT) systems, such as the customer information system (CIS). Modifying the billing process by introducing new data to “bill, print, and mail” is a significant change. Ironically, once completed, incorporating enhanced usage data into monthly billing should be less costly to operate and maintain than a separate system.

Importantly, while a third of the customers in the Idaho program used the Web site at least once, only 1 percent used it to view their hourly data. One possible conclusion is that consumers have no interest in hourly data. The better conclusion is that their interest is based on having data in a useful context: How does hourly data relate to what’s important to the consumer? The answer appears to be, as explained below, daily use and cost data for the billing period.

Since the basic context of usage information relates to the bottom line on the customer’s bill, the answer of what’s important also relates to this bill. The typical consumer will have questions about his or her power use if the bill is unusually high (or, less often, too low). Today’s bill provides a comparison with the same month last year or the previous month, both of which are valued by consumers. But if the total use seems reasonable based on this comparison, what’s to explain the high bill?

Today, we turn to the phone and call the utility, but even then, the utility usually has no additional data. Customer service representatives can talk customers through general variables such as changes in the weather (it became hot or cold) or occupancy (a vacation occurred or a teenager came home for the summer) that affect use, but they typically lack the tools and information to answer the customer’s specific question: Why is my bill so high this month?

Daily Data: The Happy Medium

AMI allows us to break usage into monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, and even quarter-hourly periods. A consumer wanting to manage his or her bill needs to know:

• The cost of power; and
• How power is used.

Sticking with