The Infosys Utilities Blog seeks to discuss and answer the industry’s burning Smart Grid questions through the commentary of the industry’s leading Smart Grid and Sustainability experts. This blogging community offers a rich source of fresh new ideas on the planning, design and implementation of solutions for the utility industry of tomorrow.

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March 31, 2012

Utility Inbox (Part 1 - Concept & Solution)

528_1.jpgCurrently many of the utilities, if not all, use email communication method to send some of the notifications and marketing messages to the customer.

Examples of such messages are - 'your bill is ready...',  'your payment is due on...',  'a demand response event is coming up and requires your action...',  'your payment has been rejected by bank...', 'a new program has been launched which might be beneficial to you...', 'this is your final notice to make payment...', 'your deposit amount has been fully paid...', 'Your payment arrangement details are...' etc.

The total number of instances of such messages/notices on a daily basis is very significant and the total O&M cost associated with this process is also very high.

If customers are given an option to ask for getting all these messages through utilities inbox then it is supposed to be a win-win for both the utility as well as customers.

Challenge:

  • The main challenge in this concept is customer mindset where they, in practical world, expect these messages through postal mail.
  • But with some of the solution options mentioned below (like making it optional, delivering alternate notification to primary email, starting with non-critical messages etc) this challenge can be minimized to a greater extent.

Solution:

  • An Utilties inbox can be created in customer's My Account (Utilities online portal for customers) where all such messages can be securely delivered like most of the banking websites currently provide to their customers.
  • At the same time utility can send another email to the customer's primary (regularly accessed) email id notifying them about the actual message delivery to their utility inbox.
  • This will still be an optional choice for the customer to choose but since it has more benefits for the customer than the postal way hence most of the customers are probably going to opt for it.
  • During different times of interaction with the customer utility can get customer's contact preference on this and store it. This can be made sophisticated and customized by categorizing the different types of notices/messages and attaching customer's preference on each of this category.
  • In the pilot phase of implementation Utilities can only start with non-critical message delivery through this route, get customer feedback and based on that gradually include other critical messages. But at first, utility will have to take approval from their corresponding utility commissions for each of the message that they move from the regular delivery channel to this new channel.

 

 

March 30, 2012

The pace of change - connecting offshore wind in Germany

509_1.jpgInfrastructure development in Germany moves at a slow pace. This would seem to be supported by my own experience here in seeing the relatively modest progress of a flyover being built opposite my window for the last year and a half.

The German Government is preparing a bill for the summer on how to get offshore wind connected to the grid. This is to meet their ambitious targets for renewables and forms part of the "Energiewende" - Energy Transition which is the country's "no-looking-back" approach to the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Nuclear is out and renewables are being fasttracked to meet 35% of electricity demand; with installed offshore wind expected to reach 14 GW. The green lobby in Germany has never had it so good.

The reality is that the current operational capacity off the north and east coast of Germany is only 200 MW[1] and 70 times this capacity is needed to come online in the next 8 years if the offshore target is to be met. Several gigawatts of wind projects remain "in the pipeline" but there is a lack of coordination in laying the real "pipelines", in this case the high voltage direct current HVDC electrical connections to the onshore grid. Projects are stuck in a planning and legal quagmire, with no clear statement yet from the government on how to prevent a "cable salad[2]", who will take responsibility for failure to connect and meeting deadlines between the TSOs, wind operators, suppliers and insurance companies.

Tennet, the Dutch Transmission Operator which operates part of the critical North-South line in the German grid, is attempting to address its own scheduling problems and is seeking direction from the government. As recently as last month, Tennet have called for a programme of three measures: a binding long-term offshore plan, clarification of legal liability and creation of a German direct-current grid operator. Indeed, it would appear that the key ministers in the ruling coalition, Dr Rösler (BMWi - economy and technology) and Dr Röttgen (BMU - environment) have sent out a positive signal to address the issues, and a bill is expected before the end of summer. Whether offshore wind connection can then accelerate enough to meet the 2020 targets remains to be seen -certainly the pace at which a flyover is built does not bode well.

March 26, 2012

AMI Testing - what does it take to get it right?

 

AMI components, like meters and endpoints, are in different locations in the field while using different protocols and hybrid communication technology (RF, PLC and GPRS) with the support of hardware like concentrators, repeaters and third party communication service providers. Head-end systems may also be scattered geographically while Meter Data Management servers are at a centralized location. AMI testing is done at the laboratory level and it requires the right automation and testing tools to test all components and scenarios across a wide range of geographies. This testing environment must be capable of replicating this complex environment for mass deployment testing. Some of the proven testing approaches are given below:

Meter testing:

The meter is the primary component for data creation and it needs to be tested for accuracy of data capture while remaining in line with the specifications of the utility. Testing can be done by a meter testing laboratory that is certified by a regulatory board/authority. An in-depth understanding of different protocols and testing tools are also required at the laboratory level to evaluate the performance.

Endpoint testing:

Endpoint plays the role of a gateway between the outside world and the meter. It is important to ensure accurate communication between meter to endpoint, endpoint to meter, endpoint to network and network to endpoint. Appropriate testing tools having communication capabilities with endpoints are required to verify the configuration parameters and compare them with the result report.

Communication Network testing:

Hybrid communication technologies are required for a complete AMI implementation for any utility. The Testing team should also have experts in different communication technologies. AMI network faces issues like time synchronization through various components, network capacity, speed, missing data packets and intervals. Network is one of the most complicated components to test in a laboratory. A Tester can test with few endpoints, concentrator with Radio frequency but mass level testing at laboratory level is difficult to achieve. Mass deployment testing can be done in a laboratory by using a simulator which has the capabilities to create networks with thousands of different components. Each component's behavior needs to be tested in actual condition and recorded in a simulator to replicate a near to real scenario behavior in laboratory. In actual field conditions there are possibilities of frequency jams and obstructions; which is not possible to replicate in a laboratory.

Head End System testing:

 Utilities require single or multiple head end systems depending on the type of AMI components. Functional and performance testing need to be done for data collection, validation, configuration and messaging with different communication technologies and a number of components.

Meter Data Management Testing:

MDM support millions of data including interval meter data import, VEE and storage, daily meter determinant calculations and billing exports. MDM testing needs to be done to benchmark the level of performance and scalability. It can be done by performance tools with simulators that are needed to create millions of data.

End-to-end Scalability testing of AMI system:

End-to-end AMI systems work fine at the time of initial pilot projects with a small number of components; but the main roll out has thousands of meters, endpoints, other network components and large volumes of data collected on a daily basis. Performance testing should be done for end-to-end AMI systems to find out its scalability.

There are many tools available in market. It is also good to integrate the tools and reports of testing output, automation of testing process and simulators to generate End-to-end network components for scalability testing, which helps in effective AMI testing and to implement a robust system in field and serve long term to utility with the confirmation of ROI.

The integrated AMI business case

Jumping off from my original post.

The evolution of smart grid technology, created an dynamic change in the evaluation of field technology for utilities. For years traditional equipment, such as transformers, meters, substation controls, had been routinely purchased without concern. But now this equipment across the board is under critical scrutiny. It is the drastic change in technology (read cost to some extent) that has resulted in this new policy. The proliferation of smart meters has led to the need for approvals at the meter level. Based on this scrutiny as well as past business case controversies for smart meters, I want to delve into the aspects that make for a strong AMI business case.


19_1.jpgAs with all business cases, we must look at cataloging costs into initial capital investment and recurring costs/benefits (eg maintainence costs, network management).

Capital costs:
Upfront Investment-
AMI programs have taken significant investment in the past. One factor of the large price tag is the difficulty of technology selection. The primary upfront investment would include:
• Meters
• Communications
• MDM Software
• Data Warehousing
• Head End System
• Additional Field Equipment


Year 1 Project Based Costs- As part of any large scale implementation, there are roll-out costs not directly associated with project kick-off activities that must be a part of the overall business case. These costs include:
• Software Implementation
• AMI Integration
• Project Management
• AMI Testing

Operating Expenses:

Maintanence and Management Costs- There are costs associated with the depreciable life of your smart grid program. These include both one-time costs as well as recurring monthly or annual costs.
• Software Maintenance
• Routine Equipment Maintenance
• Upgrade Costs
• Comunications Network Management and Maintenance
• Installation Costs
• Service Costs
• Ongoing Field Training


Benefits- As a part of assembling the business case, the monetary benefits must be calculated. The primary impact for most smart meter programs has been the reduction of workforce, but there have been additional minor impacts from the alert feature of the meters. The benefits are listed below:
• Reduction in field force
• Reduced outage occurrence and reduction time to diagnosis
• Reduction in theft due to alert
• Improved customer satisfaction through improved response
• Reduction in consumption (please note this is a factor often overstated)


Peripheral Systems Adding to Cost/Benefit: Most utilities assembled their smart meter business case on a stand-alone basis. However, it is more realistic to assemble the business case as a full-fledged smart grid roadmap. This roadmap would include the additional reduction in outages based on a fully integrated MDM and outage management system. With a fully mapped connectivity model, it is fully feasible to diagnosis outages without a customer call. The key areas that provide strength to smart meter deployments are listed:
• Outage Management
• GIS
• DMS
• Stand-alone or Integrated Event Correlation


Based on the expected life of the program or equipment the net present value of the program can be calculated. Once you discount each cost/benefit based on the utilities weighted average cost of capital, you arrive at a overally program value (positive or negative)
I would be interested to see what you find. I have run different models of the included inputs and the results vary wildly based on the tangilbe benefits allocated. The allocated costs are fairly standard across the board and can be calculated readily. However the benefits seem to vary based on source. Many pundits will argue that consumers reduce electricity consumption by 7-9%, but realistic savings are likely in the 1-2% range. The true value is in the delivery of an end-to-end business case, outlining the costs and benefits of the truly integrated utility.

Two Issues that will Impede Interoperability

In developing and deploying Smart Grid ("SG") technologies we're consistently encountering two central testing issues surrounding Interoperability.  Addressing and resolving these two issues will be critical, I believe, to ensuring the promise of interoperability become reality.

 

The first of these is a lack of industry-wide "Use Cases" associated with Interoperability.  This is a problem because Interoperability clearly is an important key to actually unlocking the potential huge benefits provided by Smart Grid for the utility industry.  Generally "Interoperability" offers the ability to combine core business and operational systems in new ways to create new beneficial insights into utility operations and the revenue cycle; and quite possibly provide entirely new management tools for the control and management of the utility.

 

For example when we talk about Interoperability, we frequently talk about a Storm Scenario example.  In this we discuss how the SG system orchestrates data/sensor readings from OMS, SCADA, DA, AMI, MDMS, GIS, etc. to speed the recognition/definition of an outage, pinpoint the probable cause, define the solution, re-configure the system on-the-fly, and dispatch repair crews; all without a single customer call, or the time and expense of dispatching crews to try and find the outage source.  The problem is that, right now, each time we begin to design how this is to be accomplished and how to test this (general) interoperability functionality we have to create the solution, associated use cases and test plans as custom packages. 

 

A while back SCE created and shared the first widely available industry use cases for utilities that were addressing AMI.  These use cases have since become the core standards for testing and change management.  Perhaps it's time for the utility industry to consider an industry-wide effort to create Smart Grid Interoperability Use Cases as a guide to define core interoperability, testing and change management?

 

The second critical issue is associated with the inability to create working full-scale test environments to actually set-up and run end-to-end testing of Smart Grid systems.  Historically utilities will experience a major system change-out once every 5 to 7 years.  But with AMI/Smart Grid the pace of major system change-out has significantly accelerated.  AMI alone has brought new major systems of Head-End and MDMS technologies.  Additionally this has exposed material weaknesses in legacy systems including CIS/CRM, web-enablement, IVR, OMS, etc. and as S-G has become established within numerous operational systems.

 

AMI/Smart Grid single application and unit testing is an established process that can typically be addressed within the development/test environment of a utility implementing S-G.  But almost no utility is equipped in any manner to set-up the complex Test Environments and Databases needed for end-to-end S-G systems.  As a result utilities are quickly discovering that they don't really know how the completed system will work when turned-on.   Thus they must take a leap of faith that the completed full-scale interconnected system probably works and know that they'll just have to learn on-the-fly about its characteristics and capabilities.

 

It seems to me that this is a problem that will require the combined efforts of many of the industry's leading AMI/SG technology firms and consulting organizations.  I'll write more in my next Blog on how I suggest we address this as an industry.

March 23, 2012

What's your water footprint? (2)

Continuing my blog on water footprints, concern about water has been growing, with even 'wet' countries such as the UK suffering droughts. Water is becoming scarcer in certain places, and its availability is a major social and economic concern. Currently, about a billion people around the world routinely drink unhealthy water. The Millennium Development Goals are driving improvements but, even if the difficult goals are met, it will still leave more than an estimated half a billion people without access to safe drinking water and over a billion without access to adequate sanitation. According to the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from the World Water Assessment Program in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. So it is clear we cannot carry on using water as we have been doing, especially in regard to food production and manufacturing. Some of the changes needed are very much social, such as limiting population and high water use products (e.g. red meat), but these are major political issues, and not ones the water sector can address. We can however both manage the water cycle more effectively (using Integrated Water Management, IWM, techniques) and reduce water use, especially in regard to food production and manufacturing. My next blog will look at some best practice in these areas.

March 21, 2012

AMI: Backing water utilities for business process innovation

Drinking water, like energy, is crucial to sustainable development. 53_1.jpgMisuse impacts the economy, the environment and social welfare. We all know that the rapid growth of population, coupled with limited availability of water resources, puts tremendous pressure on water supply and demand all over the world. In such a scenario, it is necessary to supply water in a sustainable and a highly efficient manner to ensure minimal impact on the supply demand balance and the community at large.
Water utilities around the globe face a challenge of providing high quality service at a reasonable price to its customers, while operating efficiently and profitably. AMI can help them to achieve these business benefits.
So what are the business objectives of water utilities and how AMI helps them in business benefits?

Decisions for infrastructure investment
Utilities need to monitor the following:
When is water being used? How much water is being used? and How long it is being used for? The answers to these questions allow water utilities to:

  • Optimize the use of current infrastructure for better service
  • Balance supply and demand through availability of water
  • Support expansion and the application of innovative practices

Modernization of water business processes
Through remote reading of water meters, timely access to metering data and provisioning meter data directly to customers, water businesses can achieve efficiencies through:

  • Avoiding cost of human dependent meter reads and rework in meter reads
  • Nearly 100% meter reads, including missed/non accessible meters
  • Validation of metering data to capture discrepancies in data
  • Drop cost of call center and field operational as a result of fewer discrepancy bill
  • Timely identification and notification of abnormal water usage

Water accounting and theft detection
Remote and timely access to water metering data allows water utilities to monitor metered inflow and outflow in water networks leading to:

  • Enhanced leakage management activity
  • Identification of non-revenue water sources
  • Recognition and notification of attempts to tamper with the meter

Improved demand management

  • Providing means to monitor real time water consumption on web portal/Home Area Network
  • Enable comparison with average use
  • Development of innovative water tariffs based on history data and water availability

Improved customer participation

  • Self-monitoring of consumption
  • Domestic leakage and irregular usage alarms
  • Publishing information of water storage levels, inflow, rainfall

Advanced Metering Infrastructure can help water utilities tackle the above challenges through innovative processes, customer awareness and participation. To strike the balance between the quality service standards customers expect and optimizing operational costs, utilities need to select and implement AMI systems and IT solutions. Keep in mind, the traditional issue with AMI water implementations has been the cost trade-off between innovative technology and potential efficiencies. Consulting AMI experts and piloting the leading AMI solutions will help water utilities determine if the long term benefits of AMI solutions overcome the need to provide the most economical services to customers.
 
Don't miss the opportunity to interact with our AMI experts at the Infosys Webinar - 'Maximize the value of your Advanced Metering Infrastructure: AMI testing to accelerate deployments and reduce risk' on 03/27/2012, 12:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time.  Register here: Infosys Webinar
 

Why do Smart Metering programs require unique testing strategies...

Any Advanced Metering Infrastructure deployment consists of several building blocks. An end to end deployment consists of solution components from various vendors, legacy CIS or ERP systems, and sometimes systems supporting offshoots of AMI programs. This very nature of an assembled solution requires a comprehensive and detailed testing strategy from the very initiation of the transformational program....

In our experience, following are the key points that need to be kept in mind while planning for testing of an AMI program.

  • Identifying the critical functionalities and right resources for testing
  • Timely identification of key non-functional requirements, such as Performance and Security
  • Interoperability between systems following standards
  • Test automation can save lot of time and unnecessary effort
  • Tools can accelerate testing and reduce effort for repetitive testing
  • Need for thorough reviews of test conditions and scripts
  • Testing needs to focus on Impact of AMI components on the rest of the infrastructure

We have seen AMI deployments go completely off-track because of incomplete test planning and execution. The plan has to be taken up upfront during design activities itself, not on a reactive basis when systems start showing signs of stress or failure.

Few other issues that need to be considered during design include:

  • Not effectively integrating the AMI solution into the rest of the infrastructure
  • Not thinking through how to get 'good' data into the systems
  • Data management - synchronization, alignment and quality
  • Data is retained in silos and not available to everyone who needs it

If the test plan is well-developed and executed, chances are the implementation will be smooth and realization of ROI will be faster.

Keep on following our blogs on this topic for the next few days...

March 12, 2012

What is your water footprint?

Most people worldwide are unaware of how much water they use each day, although the figures are becoming more known, especially where smart meters are installed. Direct use varies from about 70 litres per person per day (l/h/d) in the Far East, to 150 l/h/d in Western Europe, to 300 l/h/d in the US. However this is just direct use, i.e. that used 'from the tap' for clothes washing, cooking, hand washing, shower and bath, toilet and outdoor watering). This direct use is a fraction of the water that is utilised per person in order to meet their daily needs. Water is required to grow food, manufacture goods, and produce energy. Such water use is often referred to as 'virtual water' and the measurement of how much water is used by an individual or a country is termed its 'water footprint'. Water footprints are sub-divided into three types, green, blue and grey. In simple terms the green water footprint measures the water flowing in aquifers and rivers used for irrigation, washing, processing and cooling, etc. The blue water footprint measures the volume of groundwater and surface water consumed, i.e. withdrawn and then evaporated. The grey water footprint measures the volume of water flow in aquifers and rivers polluted by humans (see http://www.waterfootprint.org for more details and figures). The water footprint of nations varies greatly, with in general terms that of the developed world being far higher than the developing. Whilst the average is about 1,400m3 per person per year, in India this is about 1,000m3 per person per year, in the UK 1,700 m3 per person per year and the US 2,800 m3 per person per year. However this is not the whole picture as, whilst 20% of the water used in the US is from product sourced from other countries, in the UK it is about 70%. Water footprint is thus a key issue with regard to global water security. In the next few blogs I will be looking at the effects of these footprints, and how we can both reduce our footprint and manage water sustainably.

March 6, 2012

High speed rail lines .........are water Utilities on the same track?

Last week one of the UK newspapers commented on United Utilities' idea to run a 2metre water pipe for over 200 miles from Manchester to London, this was especially topical given the announcement of the drought designation in the same week. I am sure the UK Government are keen to welcome innovative approaches to move water from apparently more plentiful areas to more "restricted" areas. However, how practical and viable would this approach really be?

The underlying fact is that it is extremely expensive to transport water, unless of course the route was all downhill. The amount of water that it is claimed would be transported down the pipe equates to less than 2% of Thames Water's daily supplied water.

However, even besides the physical cost and effort of transporting water, it was pointed out at the Water UK City conference last week in London by water company executives including United Utilities' CEO, Steve Mogford, that to run such a main down the side of the proposed High Speed Two (HS2) rail line would be a highly risky venture anyway!

But the principles of trading water relatively short distances between different water companies is a reality and is being more actively discussed as a result of the government's Water for Life white paper and Ofwat's, the water regulator, consultation document. The attendance of both Defra and Ofwat at the conference ensured active debate on the subject. The point is that whilst rainfall has been extremely low in many parts of the UK for quite some time, we have also experienced too much water, leading to floods in other parts of the country.

This unpredictability moves the debate to discuss the options available for water sustainability-type demand reducing initiatives such e.g. grey water use and more domestic water storage. Should such initiatives be implemented even when there are no actual restrictions in place? This would mean even with today's demand that there would then be surplus for use by other "more needy" requirements for clean water.

There are also other perspectives to be considered. The news article also identified the question of who would ultimately end up paying the cost... the customer of course. The initial cost of installation, as well as the on-going cost to operate (and maintain) such a structure would be substantial and is the price ultimately worth paying?

This topic is unlikely fade away given the changing climate the UK and other parts of the world have been experiencing recently. Thus more innovative thinking is required in terms of how a more sustainable solution to the water supply in the UK, as well as other parts of the globe is achieved.

Apple Siri - Changing the Self-Service way

Voice recognition has been an area where a lot of research is being done for quite some time and there had not been any major break-through until Apple Siri was launched last October along with iPhone 4S. Since its launch it has taken the world by storm and re-defining the capabilities of voice recognition. While Siri is evolving, and utilities are moving towards advanced self-service, then why not include Siri in the roadmap for utilities self-service journey.

The utility self-service application and other applications integrated with Siri, acting as a personal assistant, can take your customer experience to next level. Customer no longer need to log into their computers to open their online account, remember payment due dates, never miss any demand response events, etc. Whenever a notification is sent from the Utility, Siri would notify the customer based on their availability and customers can just ask Siri to take the necessary action without having to click or type. So making payments for utility services, getting analytic like best rate, tips to save energy, reporting emergency requests, outages, participating in demand response events, etc. can be achieved easily. Also Siri would be able to access a lot of information available on customers iPhone like calendar, notifications bar, notes, settings, etc. which gives it immense power to understand personal preferences and act accordingly. For example it will be smart enough not to disturb when in a meeting.

The best part of it is that customer gets connected with the utility as if he/she is talking to an agent, and at the same time there is no investment from the utility on a customer service representative. Also this agent does not have any issues in answering customer queries in a sweet voice every time the customer wants without any wait time nor does it have issues working at any hour.

A sample conversation between customer and Siri can be as follows.
Customer: Do you thing I am paying more for my utility bill
Siri: Based on current availability of plans, Residential Tier-1 seems to be best plan for you.
Customer: So if I switch from my current plan to new plan, how much would I save?
Siri: Based on your last 12 month's usage, you will save approximately 135$ annually.
Customer: Sounds good, can you sign me up for the new plan?
Siri: Your request is issued and your reference number is 3826432.
Customer: Please save the reference number for future purpose.
Siri: I have added a memo with the reference number.

With all these nice things said, there needs to be investment from utilities to start venturing into the newer areas when it is catching speed to catch the attention of customers and improve their self-service adoption rate drastically.

March 5, 2012

Prepay Billing and Payment Option (Part 1 - Regulatory challenges in US Market)

Pay-As-You-Go billing and payment option, also known as Prepay Service, is not an alien concept in Utilities. Even though it's very popular in Europe and Africa, it's gradually making it's way into US market as well.

I would like to discuss about one major challenge that this concept is facing in US market and why it is not big of a challenge. The challenge is not physical infrastructure but regulatory constraints from utility commissions.

The main concern that is being raised is to safeguard the customers and that is "utilities shouldn't disconnect the customers without taking all required measures for protecting the customer's interests".

Let me give you few analogies which show that prepay service works very well in few other industries in spite of having similar constraints.

Gasoline Usage and Mobile Prepay and their similarity with electric prepay:

Just take the example of prepaid services for mobile phones or gasoline usage in cars. Both mobile phones as well as gasoline have also become basic necessities in today's world much like electricity. Do electricity regulators ever think why prepaid services are allowed in these when they are not yet willing to accept it for utility? It's mostly due to mindset.

Customers having prepaid mobile phone already know about the risks associated with it and they knowingly opt for prepaid service and hence make required adjustments in their lifestyle and take required action to keep their prepaid service running as long as they want.

Same goes with gasoline usage. Did you ever hear a customer complaining that he was left stranded in the middle of a non-service area due to running out of gasoline in his car or a prepaid mobile phone user complaining that he doesn't have enough balance in his account to talk? In the gasoline scenario, isn't there any situation today where the customer runs out of gas even though he needed it badly?

Car manufactures already provided fuel indicators in each car so that customers are aware of how long the gas will last. Mobile prepaid service providers similarly provide alerts on minutes or balance remaining on the account.

So if customer is made aware of similar risks associated with prepaid service in electric utility where utilities will take the responsibility of providing them timely alerts of such risks like low balance and customer still voluntary opts for it then there shouldn't be an issue in disconnecting the customer when they run out of balance.