Utility AMI pilot OK’d
by By RICK NORTON Associate Editor
Apr 05, 2013 | 1345 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Cleveland Utilities will launch a six-year conversion of its 30,000 water meters to Advanced Metering Infrastructure technology, starting with a 500-unit pilot installation to be completed by the end of the fiscal year.

AMI, commonly known in the industry as SmartMeters, is no stranger to CU nor to many utility companies, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Over a two-year period in 2010 and 2011, the local utility spent about $4.6 million to convert 30,000 old analog electric meters to the remote-read technology in order to cut costs, improve the efficiency and accuracy of the meter-reading process, and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the environment by removing more service vehicles from the road.

With the electric meter conversion long-since completed, CU is ready to move on to the Water Division.

On a unanimous 5-0 vote Thursday by the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities, CU will amend an existing EnergyAxis Management System contract between Elster Solutions LLC (licensor) and the utility to begin the AMI water pilot.

On a motion by Eddie Cartwright and second by Joe Cate, CU will spend $98,768 on the pilot startup which will include hardware, software, delivery and installation. Walt Vineyard, CU vice president of Information Technology, said installation of the 500 pilot meters will be completed by June 30. If the pilot goes as planned, CU will budget some $4.5 million over the next six years to convert all 30,000 water meters.

Vineyard said cost per unit of installation is about $150.

“We believe we will get as much, or greater, benefit from these water meters as we did the electric meters,” CU President and CEO Tom Wheeler told board members during the formal monthly session in the utility’s training center.

Like the AMI electric meters, the technology will provide an improved means of notification between the customer meter and Cleveland Utilities, Wheeler explained.

The 42-year utility veteran used a current example to explain the AMI technology’s purpose.

“We had a situation a month ago where water was leaking on a customer’s premises ... they weren’t there [at home],” Wheeler cited. “A long story short, they ran up about a $4,000 water bill. Even when we filed the adjustments and things that we can do, it [was] still a big water bill. It [was] a $2,000 water bill.”

He added, “AMI, the way we’re hopefully going to set this up ... will notify us. Instead of that leak going several weeks, we can catch it in two or three days.”

Although the Electric Division’s conversion was completed in only two years, the Water Division initiative will be budgeted over a six-year span, Vineyard explained. Asked by board members why the water project will take so much longer, Vineyard confirmed it is because of total costs and budget constraints.

“We’d like to do it in one year,” Wheeler acknowledged, but conceded it will have to be budgeted in phases.

Vineyard said the water meter pilot will target the same area of the city as did the electric meter conversion. Neighborhoods off Peerless Road across from the Mars Chocolate North America plant, and stretching toward the Cleveland State Community College campus, will be the first to have their water meters converted in the pilot phase, he pointed out.

Even while CU was in the middle of its electric meter conversion, the utility was planning to follow with the Water Division, provided the cost savings and expected efficiencies were realized in the Electric Division.

Although AMI technology is intended to better streamline the billing process for the utility and community residents, the electric meter conversion wasn’t embraced by all CU rate payers. Of the 30,000 electric customers, some 43 initially balked at having the AMI units installed in their homes. Opponents cited concerns over home privacy, fears that CU could control the use of their home appliances and health concerns involving the transmission process.

The AMI technology used by CU revolves around radio frequency signals to transmit kilowatt-hour use from home or business to the utility. A comparable, but different, AMI technology used by Volunteer Energy Cooperative transmits using existing power lines.

In order to give electric customers a choice, the CU board authorized a $10 opt-out fee. Under this arrangement, customers who don’t agree to an AMI electric meter conversion have $10 tacked on to their monthly bills. At last report, the original 43 who refused the AMI meters had dropped to 19. Under CU agreement, hesitant customers can have the conversion done at any time upon request.

The opt-out fee helps offset the cost of maintaining a meter-reader route for customers who continue to use the old analog units, CU officials explained.

In a CU board meeting in October 2012, Wheeler described the opt-out fee as a fair compromise because it gives customers a choice. Most utility companies that convert to AMI technology do not offer this kind of choice, he explained. The meter changeout is required.