SEMO Electric installs new 'smart' meter system

Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Brad Milam, systems engineer for the SEMO Electric Cooperative, looks at usage for a customer's home. More numbers and information are now available to the cooperative with the installation of smart meters. (Michelle Felter/Standard Democrat)

SIKESTON -- In an effort to increase its efficiency, SEMO Electric Cooperative has installed new smart meters for some 16,000 customers in the six counties it serves, the Sikeston Standard Democrat reported.

"These are just a great tool," said Brad Milam, systems engineer. "The main point about this system that's different is that it has a power-line carrier which sends us signals. The meters are pretty much the same. Now they just have a communication module."

Those signals -- also called pings -- will alert company officials if things aren't working right.

"For instance, if there is an outage, we can actually pinpoint where it starts," said Glen Cantrell, communications manager for SEMO Electric. "That helps us cut down on response time and is less time for our customers to be without power."

Cantrell said the pings are one of the biggest reasons the company decided to swap to the new system. However, there are other advantages, too.

"There is so much more information that can be gained from a smart system," he said. "It's giving us numbers that we have never seen before."

For instance, it compares usage not only month to month and year to year, but also hourly. That means that if a customer comes in complaining of a higher-than-usual bill, they are able to look at the usage chart. For instance, the usage may show a peak between 2 and 4 p.m. -- perhaps the time the homeowner usually does laundry -- and SEMO Electric can advise the individual do that task at a different time of day.

Although customers cannot currently monitor these usage trends themselves, Cantrell said the hope is that they will eventually be able to have that information available on their Internet accounts.

Substation usage is also monitored. The company has already found the benefits of that tool by controlling irrigation in a particular area during certain times to keep peak usage down.

The peak usage number is so important because those recorded in June, July and August set the amount available -- which the company pays for in full -- for every month of the year, noted Milam.

Cantrell said that keeping down costs such as those are what is really driving the swap to the smart meters.

"Our co-op is not like other utilities because we are also owned by our members," he said. "We are trying to be more efficient as well as be better stewards of the co-op to save time and money for our members."

The meters will also cut down on costs by eliminating the need for the 10 contracted meter readers in the next few months, said Cantrell. He said that while there is a "large cost" to installing the meters upfront, they will likely pay for themselves within three to five years.

Installation of the meters began in September and wrapped up in April. Since then, Cantrell said meter readers have still been checking the usage.

"We're comparing notes against what the meter reader is saying and what the system is saying," said Cantrell. "Like any new system, we're still working out the bugs, and we're making sure everything is going to work OK."

According to Cantrell, the company hasn't heard any real feedback from customers yet. He expects that customers won't begin to see any real changes until meters are turned off from the office for delinquent accounts.

"With the current system, if someone is delinquent, we have to pull a lineman away from his normal duties, give him a list of the accounts and have him try to collect from each home (before we disconnect.) And when they reconnect, we have to send a lineman out," said Cantrell. "With the new system, at a certain time in the morning once a month, we will go in and just turn off all of those remotely."

Cantrell noted that mailers will still be sent out to those who face a shutoff. Also, on the day of the shutoff, the co-op's two office locations will have extended hours.

SEMO Electric is not the only electric company in Southeast Missouri to use these smart meters.

"We have had them since the mid-90s on most of our systems," said Mike Cleary, communications executive for AmerenUE. "It's not a totally perfect system, but for the most part it is reliable, and there has been a significant benefit over the years."

Cleary said customers see a big advantage when it comes to response time for outages. "There have been cases in which we've had the trucks rolling before we get a single call," he said.

In addition to reducing meter-reading costs, Cleary said the remote system is beneficial to customers when the weather is bad because the company has been able to do away with estimated readings.

Officials from the Sikeston Board of Municipal Utilities did not respond to a phone call regarding any plans for future upgrades.

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