When Johnson City Power Board (JCPB) re-branded itself as BrightRidge in 2017, it was a good time for the utility to take stock of its current standing and evaluate its future technology needs. Chief Data Officer Eric Egan recalls that in 2010, when the utility decided to invest in a Tantalus Utility Network (TUNet) advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system from Tantalus Systems to meet a requirement to support time-of-use rates, he was skeptical that JCPB would see a positive return on the investment. Today, he’s happy to admit that he was wrong.
Most utilities do a business case evaluation before investing in an AMI system, but not many go back a few years after deployment to measure and evaluate the payoff of smart grid technology. BrightRidge went the extra mile and took a closer look at the performance of their Tantalus system in the summer of 2017 after the system had been in place for more than five years. To say that utility executives were pleasantly surprised at the results would be an understatement.
BrightRidge is a public, not-for-profit electric utility that has been serving Johnson City, Tennessee and surrounding areas since 1945. Today, BrightRidge provides electricity and related programs, services, and products to approximately 77,000 metered customers across urban, rural and mountainous terrain. The utility chose the TUNet AMI system primarily due to Tantalus’ unique radio frequency communication technology. Unlike other technology providers, Tantalus was able to create a customized network solution for BrightRidge’s unique service footprint. The TUNet AMI system that was installed took advantage of both 900MHz and Tantalus’ unique 220MHz frequency communications. The 900MHz frequency is used for local area communications, while the unmatched range and high-penetration of the 220MHz network covers the rural and mountainous areas of BrightRidge’s service territory. By combining both frequencies, Tantalus was able to create a solution that is uniquely suited to reach BrightRidge’s large and diverse community. Tantalus is also a leader in the deployment of networks that use both radio frequency and fiber connectivity. After seeing successful results associated with fiber-based AMI systems at other Tantalus customers, BrightRidge has also added connections to its utility fiber network as yet another component of its Tantalus AMI system.
2010 was a year of significant technological upgrades at BrightRidge. Deployment of the utility’s TUNet AMI system began that year, with completion in February of 2012. BrightRidge also completed an enterprise software conversion in mid-2010 and began using a new meter data management system (MDMS) later that year, with full adoption after the AMI deployment was completed. The data presented in this article was collected from 2010 through June 2017.
When BrightRidge deployed the TUNet AMI system, one immediate benefit to the utility was the streamlined handling of TOS (transfer of service) orders. These orders are common in rentals and occur when customers move into and out of their homes. In a typical year, this happens more than 10,000 times in BrightRidge’s service territory, a number which is increasing as a significant number of new apartments have been built in recent years. Before AMI, TOS orders were handled manually by creating a printed paper order, which was handed over to the field service team, who would get together at the beginning of the day and decide amongst themselves who would handle which orders. Then they would go out to the field and bring back the data. This was a very costly process, not only because of the special site visit required, but also because of the administration and manual work that went into it. With AMI, these costly site visits are completely eliminated. Between 2012 and 2017, BrightRidge filled over 65,000 TOS orders electronically, saving 65,000 site visits and approximately $3.25 million in a little over 5 years.
As Matt Heath, BrightRidge’s AMI Manager says, “the real benefit is the near real time availability of the data to a widespread workforce, without the need to create orders and wait for replies from the field”. “TOS orders have been a major business transformation,” says Mr. Egan. “We don’t even need to do an on-demand meter read – billing personnel simply take the last midnight reading from the MDMS. Using the midnight reading provides a clean and consistent point of transition for the customers moving in and out.”
The benefits of avoided site visits are doubled with service disconnect and reconnect orders. Using strategically deployed meters with integrated service disconnect switches, the AMI system can issue commands to disconnect and reconnect the service remotely and avoid two separate site visits for each disconnect/reconnect combination. To date, BrightRidge has executed 14,871 remote disconnects and reconnects since 2014. All of these would have required site visits before the AMI deployment, but BrightRidge is now able to handle about 30 percent of disconnect and reconnect orders without a site visit, despite having meters with this capability on only a small fraction of their customers. That number grows each year as they deploy more meters with these remote capabilities
While the benefits of avoiding site visits are clear, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. The number of disconnect and reconnect site visits that BrightRidge has avoided may, in fact, be higher due to a change in customer behavior related to the AMI rollout, as customers have learned that BrightRidge can now disconnect their electricity without somebody having to come on site. AMI implementation has been correlated with a change in customer behavior and Mr. Egan believes that the length of time that a customer is disconnected may have gone down as a result of the utility adopting Tantalus’ solution. “It is not uncommon to send in an order to disconnect a customer’s service and have a payment from that customer called in before the order is completed.”
The immediate response provided by a smart grid network cuts the delay out of utility operations and increases customer satisfaction with faster reconnection services. For example, disconnected customers who are able to bring their accounts back up to date used to have to wait until a technician could be scheduled to go out and reconnect them. BrightRidge provides 24/7 reconnect service, but for a customer without power, any delay can be frustrating. Now, BrightRidge can reward those customers by reconnecting them almost immediately to create a much more pleasant customer experience while reducing off-hours site visits for BrightRidge.
With AMI, BrightRidge has also seen major reductions in meter tampering and current diversion. When the utility first installed its TUNet system, energy managers saw an immediate benefit from TUNet’s ability to detect diversion. In 2012, 174 incidents were detected, with a total of 34,227 diverted kWh. Since then, BrightRidge has moved beyond tamper detection to tamper prevention. Today, the number of incidents is down to about half of those experienced in 2012. Having dealt with the biggest offenders first, the utility has seen a reduction in diverted kWh of more than 80 percent. Matt Heath, BrightRidge’s AMI Manager, attributes this to what he calls “customer education.”
“Customers have learned over time that our meters are ‘smart’, and that we follow up on 100 percent of alarms. We take current diversion very seriously, and we consistently apply fees for tampering.”
Another sign that detection has turned into prevention over the years is the dramatic fall in Investigate Still Off Orders throughout the BrightRidge territory. An Investigate Still Off Order is generated when TUNet’s Control Center head end (TCC) shows kWh consumption from a meter that is in an inactive and installed state. TUNet sends meter interval data to the head end every hour, so BrightRidge can quickly identify anomalies in inactive meters. When a meter anomaly is detected, a site investigation is automatically triggered. Sometimes the anomaly is caused by faulty equipment, which can now be easily detected and corrected. But sometimes it is due to tampering. Today, Investigate Still Off Orders are almost non-existent, saving over 1,000 site visits per year. This is due to a combination of on-request reads, remote service disconnects, and the kind of customer education that Mr. Heath refers to. Word has spread that if a customer connects his or her own service, it won’t take long for BrightRidge to find out and take action.
BrightRidge is saving an additional 3,000 site visits per year through the reduction in Re-Read/Investigate Orders. A Re-Read/Investigate Order is the result of a meter reading that shows some anomaly, like a sudden jump in consumption that is radically different from the customer’s normal usage pattern. When this happens, an employee is dispatched to the customer’s site to check the meter. Re-Read/Investigate Orders still require a site visit, but the number of these orders has dropped substantially through daily variance reporting and the ability to complete on-request reads remotely through the AMI system. On the rare occasions when a site visit is required, it now often leads to the discovery of a deeper issue, like an equipment failure or a tampering attempt. Before AMI, these anomalies were harder to identify and diagnose for customers.
The biggest change, though, has been how quickly and efficiently anomalies can be identified and resolved. Instead of taking one to three bill cycles to show on a variance report, BrightRidge can receive alerts within hours from the enterprise software’s Meter Data Management application, driven by the Tantalus system, that provides fresh data from every meter every hour. As Mr. Heath recounts, “the old way, the customer would get a huge bill, come into the office, and request a meter test. The meter would be functioning correctly, so we’d have to charge them a fee for the meter test, and we still wouldn’t know what caused the jump in consumption. Now, a quick evaluation of the interval data identifies that their auxiliary heat kicked in and the problem is resolved more easily for both our team and the customer.” Sometimes, BrightRidge can actually detect high usage and proactively notify the customer of high energy use before they call the utility for an explanation.
Transfer of Service Orders, Disconnects & Reconnects, Re-Read/Investigate Orders, and Investigate Still Off Orders add up to about 20,000 avoided site visits per year with TUNet AMI, translating to an estimated $1 million in savings annually. In addition to these easily quantified savings, BrightRidge also benefits from streamlined back-office operations and business process transformations. With AMI, BrightRidge has been able to automate simple tasks and reduce the number of necessary in-person site visits. Utility employees now have the opportunity to learn and perform complex and valuable maintenance tasks including splicing fiber, installing wireless internet service and performing maintenance on AMI sites and water heaters.
Another big success factor for BrightRidge has been the Take a Load Off (TALO) program. Launched in 2013, it’s a real win-win for both BrightRidge and its customers. As a member of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), BrightRidge pays a monthly peak demand charge to TVA based on the highest one-hour system demand for electricity. Through the TALO program, BrightRidge is able to reduce this monthly charge while also helping customers make heating their water more affordable. BrightRidge offers customers a rebate and enrollment in a water heater maintenance program in return for allowing BrightRidge to install a load control switch on their water heater. Some load management systems require a separate communication network, or use fixed timers that don’t have the ability to respond to dynamic system load changes. But BrightRidge uses Tantalus load management devices that communicate on their TUNet AMI network, providing two-way communication to these devices and enabling BrightRidge to roll out TALO with little or no additional communication infrastructure. This system allows BrightRidge to leverage their TUNet system to shed load when they forecast a system demand peak, effectively reducing BrightRidge’s demand peak and the associated TVA charge. After some small losses in the early years as BrightRidge ramped up the program toward critical mass, the utility is now showing a net savings of over $200,000 per year due to reduced peak demand charges. Customers on the program don’t notice any difference in their hot water availability, and they love the worry-free water heater maintenance, all of which is performed by trusted BrightRidge AMI employees.
BrightRidge recently celebrated their 5,000th TALO water heater installation. The program now provides the utility with an average of 2.5 MW of sheddable load that can be used to manage the grid during times of high demand. As TALO continues to expand, BrightRidge is projecting cumulative savings of over $7.8 million through 2031.
The installation and successful operation of the Tantalus TUNet AMI system has helped BrightRidge achieve the American Public Power Association’s prestigious Reliable Public Power Provider (RP3) designation. TUNet’s real-time outage and restoration reporting capability helped BrightRidge first identify, and then improve, reliability indices. SAIDI, a measure of the average amount of downtime per customer over a particular year, dropped 35 percent from 64.4 minutes in 2014 to 41.4 minutes in 2017. SAIFI, which is the average number of outages per customer in the year, improved from .678 to .554 over that same time period, a reduction of almost 20 percent. CAIDI, the average time it takes to restore an outage, dropped more than 20 percent from 94.96 minutes to 74.85 minutes. With the help of Tantalus AMI technology, BrightRidge is now doing a better job of keeping the lights on for customers and quickly recovering when outages do occur.
So, what does the business case for AMI at BrightRidge look like today? While many of the AMI benefits, such as avoided site visit costs, reduced demand charges, and reduction of tampering are easy to quantify, it’s more difficult to measure the emotional value of improved customer service. AMI has increased productivity and quality of life with fewer and shorter outages and heightened customer satisfaction by taking care of problems before customers even know about them. $1.2 million per year in cost savings, plus a greater than 80 percent reduction in diverted kWh is impressive, but BrightRidge believes that the direct financial savings are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits they’ve realized from their Tantalus AMI system. BrightRidge leadership believes that every public utility owes it to the community they serve to take advantage of these benefits. As AMI Manager Matt Heath said, “AMI can transform your business if you take full advantage of the benefits it has to offer. It’s not a question of whether you can afford to do AMI. You can’t afford not to do it!”