Smart Grid AMI

Beyond AMI in Tomorrow's Smart Grid

Utilities are at a crossroad. Engineers are deploying and evaluating the smart grid's advanced feeder automation technology in the monitoring, management and manipulation of loads. Meanwhile, self-sufficient loads are emerging, classified as distributed energy resources. Simultaneously, utility executives are struggling to meet increased business pressure to generate new revenue streams from loads, while reducing costs. Both engineers and executives seem to have convergent themes and objectives, except for the third player who is diverging: the customer. Eventually the utility must recognize the importance of customer satisfaction in accomplishing any of the characteristics of the smart grid's objectives by the most cost effective means. Unsatisfied customers are uncooperative loads. A lack of cooperation is expensive to overcome if not, for all practical purposes, impossible.

By: Gary Ockwell, CTO, Minsait ACS



The customer's perception of the smart grid, whether it results in improved quality of service or reliability of service, is often more important than the actual metrics which measure it. For example, a technology such as self-healing, or fault detection isolation and restoration (FDIR), can avoid lengthy outages and will restore service within seconds-dramatically reducing SAIDI and CAIDI. However, if the public is unaware of the strides that the utility is taking to provide better service, the gains will go unnoticed, and the maximum benefit of the investment is never realized. Certainly, the public has no frame of reference to appreciate that the service is restored more quickly than it was before automation was installed.

J.D. Power's 2014 Electric Utility Business Customer Satisfaction Study (Note 5) reports an important public perception: "Power quality and reliability satisfaction among business customers who experience a power outage and receive information regarding the outage is {23% higher] among those who do not receive any outage information".

The astonishing conclusion is that power quality and reliability satisfaction is perceived to improve, without actually installing automation improvements. When it comes to customers, for all practical purposes, their perception is the utility's reality. Accordingly, for a utility to install automation and not communicate its investment in network improvements, nor to communicate the gains achieved, it is as if the gains never happened. Smart Grid automation is important. However, just as important is the means by which the improvements are communicated to the customer. The question is, exactly how is customer feedback best accomplished, without being intrusive or commercial?

The J.D. Power survey's conclusion, which is supported by similar findings in other industry studies, concludes that "proactive communication, including using digital and social media, is key to improved business customer satisfaction with electric utility companies".

The study further finds that not only should the communication be "proactive" but it should also be "personal". They concluded that proactive and personal communications methods of all types are the most effective tools, with an approximate thirty-three percent (33%) improvement in customer satisfaction (Note 5).

Therefore, the best "cost to benefit" gain to improve customer satisfaction is to provide, together with the network improvements, a means by which the utility can initiate communication with their customer. However, due to the impatience of the customer (Note 4), the method employed must be of primary benefit and value to the customer, while informing them of all efforts the utility is making to provide reliable and cost-effective service. This becomes even more important during high stress situations such as storms. In contrast to this approach, most utilities rely on the customer to contact them-a call which is answered with a recording.

The utility's internet web site is not the optimum method to achieve proactive communications with customers. A web page is not "personal". Generally, the utility's customers will visit their energy provider's web site for one of two reasons: to access account details and to obtain outage updates. Neither of these are positive experiences. Furthermore, during an outage affecting his electrical service, the customer's modem is most likely not functional, making access to the web site inaccessible.

The public's preferred choice of personal communication is via a personal smart phone application. For the minority of customers who do not have a smart phone, SMS messaging is available. The supplemental benefit of employing smart phone communications is that cell communications is less susceptible to severe storms, making it more likely to remain functional during a major disturbance.

Most important, the smart phone application must be leveraged to support other functions, which primarily offer value to the customer, and secondarily solicit important customer cooperation. Personal communication that provides information leads to active participation. Customer participation leads to customer satisfaction, which leads to cooperation. A utility can accomplish the smart grid's objectives at the lowest possible cost by wisely leveraging customer cooperation.


Ameren Illinois began a program in 2011 with a goal to deploy advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to 62% of the state of Illinois by 2019. AMI takes time to install. They have concluded that a specified percentage of a route (which will vary by terrain and other factors) must include AMI meters before the route may be converted to AMI-read. The concern that customers who opt-out or who are not yet connected create "holes" in the communication mesh will result in lower quality service (Note 1) or no service, will force the utility to delay AMI turn-on for many years, delaying their recovery of a huge investment. Ameren (Note 6) and others have noted this concern, but have not found any real solution. However, the Smart Phone app is a complimentary addition to AMI, in preparation of the AMI roll-out. AMI's blessing and curse is that most people know about AMI or the smart Grid. In a survey done by Ameren, only 45% of the public have heard the term "smart meter" (Note 6). What is distressing is that, of this 45%:

  • 25% of those who have heard the term don't know much about what it means
  • 35% have a favorable impression
  • 28% are neutral
  • 23% have an unfavorable impression
  • 14% don't know

With only 35% of the public having a favorable impression of "smart meters", this does not bode well for the utility's ability to manage customer satisfaction. The 23% who have an unfavorable impression of AMI will only fuel the problems created if greater than 1% opt-out. It can be concluded that a sizeable portion of the public is predisposed to distrust their energy provider. AMI must be coupled with an application which has a perceived value proposition for the customer. Until AMI can be converted to AMI-read, the deployment of a smart phone energy app can prepare and improve the public's perception of the utility.


Customer cooperation is achievable when there is a value proposition for EVERY customer. When utilities do not embrace the customer with their smart grid objectives and successes, they run the risk that customers will perceive no benefit, or possibly worse, will perceive that the technology is detrimental to their best interests.

An example of a failure to engage or satiate the customer is conspicuous with the typical AMI launch. AMI provides an automated two-way communication between the utility and the utility's smart meter equipped with an IP address. The major dispute with AMI is that it offers no perceived value to the utility customer, only to the utility itself. If good communication with the customer is lacking, many customers became convinced that AMI is contrary to their best interests. A quick search of AMI reveals that at least 130 interest groups and forums advocate that AMI has, in every case, led to higher energy rates. Some claim worse; in Canada and the USA, a few utilities removed their AMI meters after they resulted in fires. Although anti-AMI special interest groups are few in number, they are vocal and have had success in applying political pressure on utilities to allow customers to actively reject AMI meters installation, which is to "Opt-Out". These dissatisfied customers became aggressively un-cooperative, at a great cost to the utility.

Baltimore Gas and Electric has calculated that if 1% of their customers Opt-Out, the projected annual operational cost impact to its smart grid business case would exceed $I.3M in higher meter reading costs and additional meter reading infrastructure expenses per year. An Opt-Out program in its service territory would result in approximately $12 million in incremental capital costs (note 1). Southern California Edison (SCE) predicted that 60,000 of its customers will opt-out­ about l %; Central Maine has 1.5%. In addition to the issue of creating "holes" in the communication mesh. This could mean that neighbors of an Opt-Out customer may also have a lower quality service (note 1). In California, at least 57 local governments representing approximately 4 million people have passed ordinances that have made smart meter installations illegal within their jurisdictions. An "Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECCC) report announced this year that the planned rollout of 53 million smart meters in 30 million homes and businesses in the UK by 2020 is now likely to be postponed" ( Note 7). In Illinois, an Ameren study indicated that 8% of all customers feel that smart meters are "mostly a disadvantage". The best-case scenario for AMI is that customers don't know that they have it.

What utilities have missed is that proactively engaging their consumers could have avoided this distrust, resistance and the associated unnecessary cost.

Is there a viable alternative? Voluntary consumer engagement, using a smart phone energy application that can automatically read the meter with the camera, or extract AMI data, can completely change the AMI experience. AMI installation cost is primarily cost-justified based on combinations of the following benefits:

  • 95% meter data collection
  • 68% meter reading
  • 52% load curtailment
  • 50% meter data management
  • 45% customer care
  • 30% complex billing

The AMI features primarily benefit the utility. Many benefits are soft; for example, the "customer care" features, cited 45% of the time to justify AMI, are quantitatively and qualitatively subjective. To be of value to the customer, the engagement must meet the consumer's purpose and interest. An energy usage application must offer value across a large cross-section of the population to meet the widest possible interests for each consumer. The proportion of interests vary from state to state and country to country, but in general it is important that a consumer-focused energy usage application is able to address each segment of the consumer's interests. Following is a published segmentation of consumer interests associated with typical energy consumption (Note 2):

  • 19% are green advocate energy savers. These have strong environmental sentiments.
  • 20% are traditionalists cost focused energy savers.
  • 25% are home focused, concerned with energy savings.
  • 17% are non-green energy savers who are selective energy savers but not concerned about environmental considerations.
  • 19% are disengaged energy wasters.


An important feature of the smart phone application is an ability to very accurately forecast the consumer's hourly electric consumption. The application uses a patented process that applies the participant's answers to questions regarding the1r home and energy use habits. The data is coupled with historical building temperature data, adjusted by the weather forecast information. Overall, the forecast is further compared to spot checks taken using time-stamped meter reading, using the smart phone application or data supplied by the MDM. The net result is a certified 92% average accuracy (Note 3).

This forecast information is used in the various features detailed below; for example, to forecast exceeding a monthly budget in the meter reading section, and in analyzing the optimum load curtailment participants detailed in Load Forecast and Curtailment.

The DMS solution engine, the three-phase unbalanced load flow, relies on an hourly load profile of all transformer loads, both conforming and non-conforming. Currently a few static profiles are used for many customer classes to approximate the conforming load population. However, if a large number of more accurate hourly load profiles are available from customers using the smart phone application, these curves replace the much cruder ex1stmg static conforming load curves. The smart phone generated curves represent a more numerous, more precise number of varying load classes which are dynamically being adjusted based on weather conditions. The DMS load estimation analysis benefits by applying an adaptable topology with more accurate profiles when calculating the load distribution at every network node. This approach yields a superior analysis which benefits every automation and switching application.

Meter Data Collection

Outage notification is important to both the utility and the consumer, which helps to identify outage problems using "last gasp" technology. Outage notification data is critical to the outage management system (OMS) in order to predict a potential failure, to manage the confirmation of the failure prediction and to provide improved restoration management. AMI's single greatest value, ranked at 95%, is to record the absence of electrical service--essentially to declare an outage. Furthermore, after the repair has been accomplished and restoration is assumed to be completed, AMI is used to confirm restoration.

However, AMI is limited in providing an OMS or DMS any quality information related to outage data, other than service on/off indication. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems have an advantage since they can record information related to service quality, such as "flicking lights" or a "pole problem", but only to the degree that the caller is patient enough to answer the recorded questions. Obviously, the system relies on the customer to initiate the call, whereas AMI can receive data independent of the customer.

Is there a less expensive solution? One which first and foremost benefits the customer in a positive way, which can efficiently receive a "call" to exchange quality information related to a problem and provide personalized feedback?

The smart phone energy application is the most personal and effective tool that is able to adapt the menu responses to ask and record complex information very efficiently. The public is able to take a photograph of the electrical damage and to upload a picture taken from their phone of an electrical problem; for example, a line of fallen poles. This photograph is accompanied by the recorded longitude and latitude when the consumer "turns on" the location services option. Icons of all photographs are visible on a map in the control center for review by an operator. Each photograph is also automatically attached to its "call report". This type of data, if it is provided, is of much higher quality information and is better suited to enable the utility to have a more complex understanding of the problem, rather than the simple declaration of the existence of an outage. This information leads to improvement in the restoration time by engaging the cooperation of the customer.

The value to the public is further enhanced when the utility can push outage messages to all affected customers with an estimated time of restoration (ETR). The ETR is initially sent to inform the public, but it can subsequently be revised as a more accurate restoration time is determined. 

Confirmation of restoration is accomplished using the same method: pushing a question to selected (but not all) customers:

"Is power restored?" A response is selected with a single "tap" on the menu: "yes", no" or "don't know". Customer selection for further messaging is based on the customer subscribing to further information and updates and by selecting those customers who have in the past shown a propensity to be cooperative. For this reason, the smart phone energy app has a built-in incentive and evaluation program to encourage cooperation and further participation.

Meter Reading

AMI's second most predominant benefit is to automate meter-reading, and to upload to the utility the energy consumption of the account holder. Sixty-eight percent of the time, utilities use savings in meter reading (gained by eliminating the cost of manual meter reading) as the cost justification for AMI. The savings are decreased if there are Opt-Outs, or if the utility also has underground meters (e.g., municipals who have water meters), or if the utility does not have I 00% of their meters converted to AMI.

A superior approach to AMI, which leverages customer participation, is to use a customer-oriented energy application. The smart phone app can be used by the account holder to take a photograph of the analog or digital meter face. Both electric and water meters can be read to digitize the meter reading.

The meter reading is uploaded to the utility to record the energy consumption. The application also uploads the longitude / latitude of the location where the image is taken. For those who forget, the utility sends a message each month to the user, reminding them to take the meter photograph. An incentive program is used to encourage and collect "energy points" if they participate.

The application's patented process that accurately forecasts each user's load curve is adjusted with each meter reading. The forecasted energy bill is displayed on the customer's app in a chart, which is scrollable forward through to the end of the month and back through previous months.

The application also issues an alert if it is determined that the customer will not meet their stated electric budget. In the "customer care" section, we explain how the application is used to assist the customer to return to budget before the month's end. These powerful features will serve to earn customer loyalty.

Load Forecast and Curtailment

Fifty-two percent of the time, utilities justify AMI based on its proposed ability to curtail load. Load curtailment comes in two flavors. Load curtailment is load that is specified by the consumer as available to be shed, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The AMI-based load curtailment requires specialized circuitry at the load premise, which enables the utility to send signals through the AMI system to switch the connected load off and on.

The problem is that the curtailment agreement with the customer must be negotiated far in advance. The specific load must be pre-selected, such as air conditioner, water heater, pump, etc., and the control circuitry must be installed with the meter. The solution is complex, costly to install and requires onsite maintenance.

A more efficient alternative is the use of a smart phone application whose technology is a generation ahead of the carefully engineered AMI solution. The smart phone application leverages an amazingly unique array of capabilities.

The app supports a tool which enables the user to review the utility's curtailment programs. Each program offers different curtailment options and plans, with commensurate payback benefits. Users can evaluate the optimum payback program based on individual habits and match the degree of their "willingness to be inconvenienced" by an energy interruption in advance. Using the phone app, the customer selects the desired agreement, with the reimbursement details defined in the agreement. More important, if the time of the curtailment is inconvenient, the customer has veto power.

Under their chosen program, the customer is enrolled to receive messages from the utility. The messages are sent to the selected customers that are on the overloaded branches, feeders or substations. The energy app solicits the customer to voluntarily curtail load within a given time range.

In the past, the problem with passive curtailment programs is that many customers entered into an agreement with the utility, took the financial benefit, but did not curtail their load consumption. The utility had no way of measuring compliance, therefore AMI was an attractive solution to ensure curtailment.

The phone app overcomes the compliance verification problem, at a low cost. The algorithm's ability to very accurately profile the user's behavior enables the application to compare and record any change in the customer's energy usage apart from what would have been normal behavior.

Accurate load curves are useful to the DMS to determine the minimum needed projected curtailment for demand response. The desired response is accurately targeted at specific load locations that will have the optimum desired effect. Higher participation rates lead to greater accuracy in the load profile information, which improves the result of the DMS load flow analysis.

There are many complex applications which are used for load curtailment based on the critical nature of the load relief. However, the earlier adjustments can be applied, using the passive results, the less likely the need will transition to the compulsory methods of load curtailment of demand response. Nevertheless, the DMS methods of demand response or load relief are improved with the data supplied by the energy app. Those methods are:

  1. Passive Load Curtailment through direct dynamic and personal communication with the customer's phone energy app.
  2. Voltage peak shaving controls the substation load tap changer or down-line regulators
  3. Integrated Volt/VAr control attains power loss reduction by setting transformer taps and by controlling capacitor banks while ensuring that feeder end-of-line voltages are above the low limit through a coordinated  adjustment of  voltage  regulators.Individually, loss reduction and Voltage reduction will each result on a load reduction.
  4. Emergency Load Shed performs feeder switching to quickly drop load. This is considered an emergency reaction to a critical load problem.

Meter Data Management

The DMS/OMS and customer smart phone application shares data and information between systems. If an AMI with a meter data management system is available, each user's forecasted profile, the actual meter reading data with the picture collected of the meter face, can also be stored in the meter data management system. Where a MDM is not available, the same data is stored in the Information Storage and Retrieval (IS&R) system. The individual user account data is stored in a cloud server or local server and sent to or picked up by the MDM where it is stored internally.

Customer Care

The smart phone application will address the first four of the consumer segmentations of the listed groups, or 81% of the public, with features and data that meets their interest. Although customer care using AMI is difficult to identify, the variations of benefits using a consumer app is limitless. For example, one benefit that is of value to 25% of the population (those who are "home-focused and budget minded"), plus the 17% who are "non-green energy savers" segment of the population, yields 42% who are "budget-minded". The application warns that the consumer will exceed their energy budget. Some utilities face hundreds of connects/disconnects a day. The smart phone application can avoid these to the benefit of the customer and the utility, using the following process:

  • The load forecast algorithm is used to determine the projected load profile for each app client. Weather forecast data and meter reading data will further refine the forecast to accurately predict the budget excess to the end of the month.
  • A message is pushed to the consumer's phone energy app with an "alert" that they are projected to exceed their monthly budget allowance by a calculated amount and percentage.
  • The phone energy app offers suggestions as to how the customer can change their energy usage in the time remaining in the current month, in order to return to budget.
  • The phone energy app offers a "bill pay" option button.

Since the typical utility's population makeup is 20% traditionalists (cost-focused energy savers) and 25% "home­ focused" (warning the customer of the impending over budget condition), the smart phone application is helpful to 45% of the customer base. For example, a major utility in South Carolina, with approximately IM meters, has forty-two percent 42% of their customer base below the poverty level.

To those budget-minded users, this approach is truly "customer care", with the utility engaging the customer in order to improve satisfaction and cooperation.

If the customer does not pay their bill, then an electrical service disconnect is scheduled by the utility. If AMI is available, the disconnect can be performed remotely. This is AMI's version of"customer care".

However, the objective should not be to make the disconnect efficient, which comes at a high technical cost to the utility, and a high reconnect fee to the consumer who is already budget-challenged, but to benefit both the utility and the customer by avoiding the disconnect. The phone energy app accomplishes this by:

  • pushing a personal notification to the account holder,
  • warning them of the scheduled disconnect. The message is displayed on the phone energy app and sent as a text message, to reach users who do not have the app or a smart phone.
  • issuing a warning daily until the day of disconnect. On the day of disconnect, a warning indicating the scheduled time of disconnection is displayed.
  • The smart phone energy app offers a bill pay button to avoid the disconnection and the subsequent reconnect fee.

Complex Billing

The smart phone energy app has the ability to display the customer bill with a dynamic interface, enabling the customer to view the various pricing options and to query the charges. The user can "tap" on the charge in question, and the app can display the reason for the charge. This enables the utility to submit a complex billing structure without the cost of printing explanations, and saves the postage necessary to send the invoice each month. The user is also able to view previous bills in graphical format to better understand their usage habits and the cost of those habits.

Another novel approach to break down the energy consumption is to translate the consumer's energy use habits to their CO2 impact on the environment. For example, 19% segmentation of consumer groups are "green advocates". The energy consumption is translated to measure their CO2 footprint in terms of the number of trees it takes to clean their individual CO2 generation from the environment. The phone energy app enables the customer to set CO2 reduction objectives and goals.

The phone energy app shows the user a comparison of their usage to other energy uses in similar neighborhoods and houses. The comparison displays if their consumption is above or below the average for their social economic group.


Utilities who wish to engage their customers using pre-pay can view the balance on their pre-pay account and can purchase additional credits using the bill pay option.


The higher the participation rate, the greater the impact to the utility. Therefore, the smart phone energy app has a built­ in incentive program in order to encourage cooperation and utility loyalty.

A very small portion of any of the various cost saving features of the smart phone energy application can be used to fund the incentive points program. Money saved on everything from postage, capital investment avoidance, demand response payback, etc., can be applied towards rewarding loyalty and participation. The incentive program itself adds to the benefits that instill participation, resulting in cooperation.

With respect to critical functions such as demand response, higher participation rates are heavily influenced by price signals coupled with word-of-mouth to encourage greater enrollment. As participation rates reach acceptable levels, the price signals can be dynamically adjusted as needed.


Consumer dissatisfaction with the utility is increasing worldwide, not decreasing. Some regions have tremendous pressures fueling this growing dissatisfaction. For example, it is reported by DNV/GL that by 2020 "the demand for natural resources will exceed what the globe can sustain". Daily rolling blackouts are already occurring in many places, amid increasing energy prices.

The pressure is on utilities to reduce costs while increasing service quality; however, the cause and effect of dissatisfaction will defeat this objective. The answer is not more and more expensive technologies to switch the customer load, without his approval, but to engage the customer as an equal partner in the supply and consumption of energy. Without a means to engage the customer on a personal level with a direct connection to the operational systems that control the grid, utilities have to resort to methods that work around the customer-the very situation that put them into this predicament in the first place.

The introduction of an all-inclusive smart phone energy application, which touches every customer segmentation and every operational issue, is here to stay. It is the only solution that remains to create and nurture a cooperative customer.