Reading the future: SWMEPA installs digital meters

Published 12:15 am Sunday, October 9, 2011

ERIC SHELTON | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Metadigm Services tech Pete Day installs a new digital meter at a residence in Beau Pré. The new meters will be installed for all 4,200 Southwest Mississippi Electric customers in the area, and 25,000 in the region.

NATCHEZ — The electricity we have enjoyed since Thomas Edison manufactured his light bulb is going digital, and energy users might not even realize it.

One of the biggest recent innovations to spark in the electricity business is described as “no big deal, and nothing special” to the folks bringing the technology to customers — because to them, providing inexpensive, uninterrupted service is all part of a day’s work.

Southwest Mississippi Electric Power Association recently began deploying new meters for the installation of an advanced metering infrastructure system. This will improve the gathering of system information that will be used to improve service and reliability.

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The technology will enable SWMEPA to read electric meters remotely, no longer requiring someone physically visiting the site to read the meter. Data can be transferred from the meter to power lines leading to the substation where equipment collects the data, and transmits it to SWMEPA’s office.

SWEPA has 25,000 meters in its system, and 4,200 in Adams County. The installation is a system-wide deployment.

Jimmy June, manager at the Natchez work station, said home outages will no longer have to be called in.

“The meter will send a flag to our office for outage management,” June said.

The amount of data transmitted by the meters can also make customers more conscious of their energy use.

“It can provide hourly, historical data, which will make the consumer aware of what they are using,” June said.

Digital meters in Lorman, Washington, Fayette and Woodville will be installed by the end of October. Nathan Bessonette, an employee with SWMEPA, and AMI meter tech, said deployment should wrap in Adams County after that.

A motherboard inside the meter projects a signal to a power line, sending the meter number, kilowatt-hours and energy consumption to SWMEPA.

Bessonette said by deploying an AMI system, SWMEPA will be capable of providing its members with more frequent, timely and accurate meter readings.

Bessonette said the future will bring even more convenience and conservation for customers.

“The main goal is to help consumers be more energy efficient,” Bessonette said. “In the future, it will give information to consumers too. Customers will be able to log in and pull up their energy usage information (on the website).”

The simplicity of the meter design allows it to be plugged directly to a house’s electric meter box. Large prongs pop into corresponding slots, and the job’s done.

The meters are equipped with an advance metering infrastructure, that allows communication with the SWMEPA offices to report outages, transmit data and prevent tampering.

“It’s not bad at all,” June said. “The worst thing will be getting 25,000 done.”

June said another advantage to having crews out installing the new meters is to diagnose and correct any problems that may have been overlooked.

Customers will not be charged for the installation of the AMI technology or AMI enabled meter.

Metadigm Services, a company that delivers end-to-end smart grid services for electric, water and gas utilities, is carrying out the meter installations.

Metadigm Services tech Pete Day, who worked in Adams County last week installing meters, said installations have been going smoothly.

“It’s a plug and play type deal,” Day said. “One the meter is installed, it takes about 30 seconds for the module to warm up.”

Part of Day’s routine is to first notify the homeowner he is in the yard, and that the power will be briefly interrupted — between 20 and 30 seconds.

“Then I get it on, and get out of the yard,” Day said.

While Metadigm employees are at the property, a handheld computer is used to gather GPS coordinates used for mapping the system.

June said the new meters are also designed to report tampering and energy theft.

Kevin Bonds, SWMEPA’s Mississippi managing engineer, said digital meters will eventually be the norm.

“It’s happening everywhere, it’s a technology proven now, and a lot of utilities (companies) are migrating to that,” Bonds said. “The meters will deal with everything from operation to accounting — so you can see the benefits to a system like that.”

Entergy Customer Service Manager Tim Runnels agreed that technology is changing quickly in the electricity business. While Entergy offers remote meters, they are only used in select locations — approximately 100 in the Natchez area.

“We’ll use them where there is a bad dog, or an area we can’t get to, like a locked gate at a school,” Runnels said.

Runnels said while there are 17,000 digital meters working as part of an Entergy pilot program, it would be too expensive to make the switch for all customers right now.

“We have no plans to put them everywhere in near future,” Runnels said. “We try to hold costs down to keep rates as low as we can for customers.”