Advanced Metering and Monitoring in a Changing World

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By Andrew Chastain-Howley

Throughout the last few years, there have been great shifts in human interaction and in the considerations of our climate future. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has continued to evolve and expand into the utility market, and this has brought another solution more firmly into the picture – that of monitoring and management of metering and asset data. These solutions solve the developing issues of efficiency of resource use, the shortage of experienced workers and the need for improved operational intelligence.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure Improvements

The original purpose of advanced metering infrastructure was with a very simple or binary reason in mind – to provide a regular bill to metered customers without the need for manual reading. While this was to be conducted in an automated fashion, it only scratches the surface of the potential. Higher frequency information allows forward-thinking utilities to gain significant insight into their customer demands and needs and can also provide the customer with the data to better manage their own usage. Water, electric and natural gas utilities are all able to provide customers with AMI connectivity and gain from this knowledge themselves if it is in place.

The utility and the customer can use the improved information to monitor, analyze and ultimately conserve resources and money. There is also a conversation to be had with respect to the data itself.

Data: A Climate Connection

All our actions have an impact on our climate future — a butterfly effect of sorts where even a single repetition can have an impact. In one of the simplest examples, we are told to turn off the faucet when we brush our teeth instead of letting the water run. This simple decision has probably saved billions of gallons over the years.

Advanced metering and monitoring data is no different, except we are talking computing and the resources that it demands. If we leave the data tap wide open, we are wasting these resources too.

We store billing and metering data in multiple locations and need redundancy of that information to deal with any unforeseen circumstances. That is a necessity, but there is often little active curating or organization of these datasets. It is especially true when we get into streaming datasets such as those for monitoring systems which manage higher frequency inputs and interconnection with active dashboards. This is absolutely the future, but the data “pipelines” must not run unchecked.

For example, consider a single shared file that has more than 130 versions stored in the cloud due to teams working collaboratively (a real-life example I had about six months ago). Many of these were versions which the collaboration software automatically saved to allow the users to look back at previous versions and to review or reinstate these if necessary. This meant that a 2 MB file had a footprint of more than 260 MB and that is even before the consideration of where this data is stored (depending on the cloud provider system redundancy, this information may be replicated two or three more times). Storage is becoming cheaper and cheaper, but these two to three orders of magnitude footprint expansions do not appear uncommon, and it is my opinion that they are almost certainly not necessary to provide the required level of redundancy. Take a look at your own systems and let’s start a conversation about data conservation.

Asset Monitoring

I am fortunate enough to be directly connected to two major monitoring centers at Black & Veatch that manage millions of asset data points on a daily basis. Much of this is streamed from SCADA systems and their historians or through more direct connects from the specific equipment. Being able to actively monitor, dashboard and trend this information has been invaluable in my work from evaluating meter degradation through to pump, pressure and other facility issues.

However, not everything needs to be actively monitored, but flow volumes for important customers or processes along with condition parameters of other equipment such as vibration, temperature and pressure are all valuable parameters in the right hands. Providing near real-time actionable intelligence across the asset space is one of the fast-developing areas in the utility arena.

There continues to be a need for collaborative computer-human interaction with these datasets to filter through the information. The initial work is conducted by the computer systems to provide the first alerts through pattern recognition which are tagged by the computer. If we just let the computers make all the decisions, in our experience there are still up to 20-30 times more alerts reported than are actual. Once the different causal relationships are understood and recorded, the magnitude of the “false positives” does decrease, but this kind of analysis is still in its early stages, so there is still a strong need for human subject matter experts to pare the alerts down to actionable intelligence. These experts can add value by providing guidance as well as to interface with utilities and troubleshoot the problems as they arise.

Even with the large number of utilities in North America, data doesn’t need to run unchecked or be as siloed as it is today.

The Little Guy

Most of these project conversations focus on large utilities with large resources and the successes that they have. However, AMI and monitoring is often even more valuable for the smaller and more rural utilities. Most have further distances to drive to collect manual or drive-by readings in comparison to their urban neighbors. The advanced metering systems can utilize fixed network or cellular systems which are often more realistic for these rural systems. Asset monitoring can also follow fixed- (often SCADA-style operations with dedicated fiber or dedicated radio) or cellular-based backhaul so that utilities of all sizes can utilize these techniques. One of the greatest values is to enable remote monitoring by the local staff and by subject matter experts outside of the organization who would not be able to help the utility unless the system data is available to them in this fashion. While this method of subject matter expert troubleshooting is not common today, I expect it to become so, especially due to the crunch in the availability of licensed and experienced operators that is occurring within North America.

Even Greater Potential

There are so many moving parts in the advanced metering and monitoring worlds right now. There is something for everyone. Even if a utility wants to keep its staff employed physically reading their meters, there is still potential to gain significant knowledge from partial deployments and for more detailed monitoring of selected assets including or beyond the metering systems. There is always a need for subject matter expertise outside of even the largest utilities. Active monitoring coupled with some of the virtual vision platforms enables the best and brightest from around the world to troubleshoot issues in two hours rather than spending two days just to get to the site. We do need to work on the regulatory agencies to allow operators to work virtually in certain circumstances, but this will happen naturally as the pool of licensed and experienced operators continues to reduce.

We should also share more; collaboration and sharing can help with the conservation of resources. Even with the large number of utilities in North America, data doesn’t need to run unchecked or be as siloed as it is today. There are only so many types of actions and reactions and related failure mechanisms for equipment from pumps to meters and processes. Building an open-source dataset of these mechanisms and their data signature should be a goal over the next few years. Saving physical resources is important for our own future and that of the next generation. Saving time is probably of equal value right now too – helping us all to focus on what is truly most important.

Andrew Chastain-Howley is a director in Black & Veatch’s Specialized Solutions Group. He has more than 30 years of experience in the fields of data analytics, advanced metering, water loss and resource conservation.

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