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March 4, 2010

What do Smart Meters and AMI mean for Outage Communications?

One of the drivers for recent smart grid programs is to help utilities reduce outages and improve restoration times. One of the questions we often hear is “What does the smart grid, smart meters and AMI mean for outage communications solutions?”  Of course, if our grid gets smart enough to eliminate power outages, then we’ll be much less likely to need outage communications!  Until that happens, we’ll continue to have a set of customers who increasingly demand access to information, and expect even more as their utilities become smart grid technology leaders. The deployment of smart meters does not fundamentally change outage communications. It does provide utilities with an opportunity to further improve the performance and capabilities of the outage management systems used to power operation response and communications around power outages.  Through AMI, these smart meters provide capabilities such as a “Last Gasp” and “Ping” which allow the OMS to quickly identify the location of an outage and also refine the prediction in the OMS to determine which device may have failed. By getting better information quicker, the OMS and its operators are now in an even better position to manage resources, prioritize work, and to deliver critical information to customers about power outages.  Overall, the customer with a smart meter on their home or business still needs answers to several key questions when a power outage occurs, in rough order of importance to the customer:

  • Do you know about my power outage?
  • When will it be repaired?
  • What caused the outage?
  • How many people are impacted?

Because smart meters provide a means to get even more accurate information, they expand the utilities’ ability to provide accurate answers to these questions in a timely manner.  As smart meter deployments continue, they allow utilities to be very accurate in defining the impacts of a power outage. This allows them to employ proactive communications systems – telling the customer about a power problem instead of the customer telling the utility.  This level of customer service is taken for granted in industries such as travel (“Your flight is delayed”) and banking (“Your balance is low”). Seeing customers translate these same expectations to utilities is not surprising, especially when we consider that utility customers have authorized billions of dollars of investment  in these technologies through rate cases and stimulus grants. At the same time, access to technology is expanding for customers as is their thirst for information. A customer’s ability to access information during a power outage is increasingly based on channels including 2-way text messaging, websites, and smart phone applications.  By offering better information on a variety of channels, utilities can reduce direct costs through call deflection on the voice channel, while increasing customer satisfaction through customer choice and proactive communications.