Utility Industry Situation
Rapid changes are taking place in Water Utilities throughout the world. Their key focus is to make better use of data. Utility restructuring and privatization is a need. Utilities are under increasing pressure to reduce costs and improve the value of service. Water industry in the US has two main segments - Utilities which supply services to customers and General services which provide water and waste water related services to utilities and other consumers.
The objective of any water utility is to effectively plan and manage how they deliver commodities to consumers. End result should be such that both the utilities and consumers should be more efficient and profitable. In order to achieve this, a next generation wireless communication method is required.
Moving from AMR (Automated Meter Reading) to Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)
So far, AMR technologies have provided reduced meter reading costs and estimated bills. However, it lacks in providing a solution that enables daily and on-demand scheduled meter reading, variable pricing options, integration with information systems, and self-monitoring and alerts for customers. It is an older technology that only collects consumption data and transfers it from the meter to the utility which is a "one-way communication". Here meters communicate to central collector via radio signals, power-line communications or satellite reads about their monthly or daily consumption totals. AMI is the next-generation solution for water utilities that goes beyond the limitations of AMR. AMI meters, also called as Smart meters are also designed to transmit information from the utility company to the consumer which constitutes to a "two- way communication". As compared to AMR, AMI is available on demand and the communication channel used is more robust which is controlled from a central point. Interval data is collected and not merely simple totals like it is done in AMR. It also enables delivery of a wide variety of services such as remote disconnects and ensures that service is currently available.
Why is AMI the answer?
Due to leaks in the distribution system, there is water that has been treated but never billed. With an AMI system, the whole distribution network can be continuously monitored by, say, periodic interval reads. Since water systems are typically underground, water utility does not get an insight of how different parts of distribution system are performing. AMI thus helps to get this insight thereby extending life of assets. AMI enables to build price structures as per customer usage i.e. those who consume energy more at peak hours are charged more. This also encourages customer to save money through less consumption. As compared to traditional water meters, AMI facilitates shorter billing cycles as the process between consumption and bill generation has decreased. Consequently this helps in increasing utility's cash flow.
Challenges in implementing AMI
Since the amount of meter data to be handled by the utilities is huge, water utilities need to implement a Meter Data Management (MDM) application which will handle large amount of data from multiple meter types, store it and process it as per utility needs. A major challenge for implementing an efficient AMI solution is to select a communication technology that will provide low- power consumption, long battery life, and reliable long-range communications with nominal cost. Though Wi-Fi provides suitable range and connectivity, it consumes too much power to attain the required multi-year battery life. While building AMI solutions for the water industry, network capabilities and design play an important role. For example, the network must be flexible enough to adapt to rural and urban scenarios. They need to consider pit, indoor, or outdoor environments that are usually present in most of America's water utilities and around the world.
The network must be reliable and robust against physical and electronic interference in order to ensure the on-time delivery of critical data to the utility. Till today huge challenge is battery powered meters. This is due to the reason that either power does not exist in the locations where the water module resides, is relatively expensive to provision, or is not practical from a safety or security perspective. Yet advances have been made in lithium battery technology to support 20- year battery life cycles. Clever design approach is required to minimize the computational capacity and RF transceiver operations. Thus, most AMI applications reduce the usage of battery power by keeping the meter transmissions limited to lesser number of times a day. Security concerns like confidentiality of customer data, data thefts, physical and logical tampering of meters, authentication bypass pose a challenge. Other concerns are integrity of meter data, usage data and rate information. Also there is a possibility of sniffing where the attacker can decrypt and observe command and control messages to meters.
Cloud & Analytics to build AMI based Utilities Applications
Customers can view consumption in specific time intervals. It can help customers to detect leaks, reduce consumption and receive alerts. Detailed consumption information present in the AMI system could be helpful during a high bill complaint. Utility can use a communications channel to obtain meter reads on demand, issue commands to the meter to perform specific tasks such as disconnecting or restricting water flow and billing. They can provide information to customers via web portals and printouts. It can allow supervising networks remotely. Real- time data can be used to anticipate problems in water systems which could help network operators to know about the nature and location of a problem.
A Cloud MDM (Meter Data Management) offering can cater to all these needs which would speed metering deployment. It can facilitate data storage and infrastructure management in a secured way. Cloud platforms, like Microsoft Azure, offer unlimited computing power & storage, space on-demand, pay-as-you-go. A cloud-based platform is capable of handling Big Data generated from billions of meters as it is a good complement to Big Data. Meter Data Analytics can be implemented using cloud’s built-in Analytics and Machine Learning tools. Thus, cloud platform tools can manage, analyze, and report on Big Data. In addition explosive growth in mobile usage for accessing data makes it a necessity now to have MDM offering on hand-held devices.
Water is becoming a scarce resource and hence water utilities need to gain an insight into the data. In the future, this data will be used to decrease operating costs, identify performance issues, enhance customer service and better prioritize infrastructure investments. Meter manufacturers will play an important role by enhancing meter capabilities which will make use of ultrasonic and magnetic flow measurement technologies. AMI Systems are evolving over the time to form a "Smart Meter System" by interacting with more systems like Billing system, Document Management System, GIS System etc.