Dothan Utilities is ramping up efforts to make its electrical grid smarter.
Smart meters have already replaced around two-thirds of old residential electric meters, and the city is speeding up the process of outfitting 9,000 meters at remaining occupied homes after the project was slowed due to COVID-19 implications.
The yearslong project, funded in part by the smart-grid initiative, is already showing benefits for customers and Dothan’s municipal utility provider.
“It helps determine what you’re doing that is causing high energy consumption,” said Chris Phillips, Dothan Utilities Operations Superintendent. “With this new system, you put the power in the customer’s hands.”
In approximately 22,000 homes, residents can now monitor their electrical usage daily and pay their bills in the “My Usage” mobile application or via their online account at myusage.com.
The app, which can be used on Apple or Android devices, includes exactly how much energy was consumed hourly and the outside temperature low and high each day to help users correlate the two sets of information.
The Advanced Metering Infrastructure is an integrated system of smart meters, communications networks and data management systems that enables two-way communication between utilities and customers.
The system provides a number of important functions that were not previously possible or had to be performed manually, such as the ability to automatically and remotely measure electricity use, connect and disconnect service, detect tampering, identify and isolate outages, and monitor voltage.
The new meters can be monitored remotely, eliminating the need to send crews each month to manually read the meters using hand-held radios. However, Dothan Utilities’ goal is to have crews inspect each electric meter annually to ensure they are in proper working order.
The project had been a topic of discussion since around 2003, but it only finally started to take off almost a decade later with a bulk of funding through the Alabama Municipality Authority’s smart grid initiative. The city of Dothan has provided a large investment of the project’s cost — last estimated at around $17 million — that also covered the product and service costs of around 36,000 meters and installation being completed by a private contractor.
Dothan Utilities is already seeing efficiency increase as a result of automation and insight provided by the technology.
“We’re already finding and solving problems,” Phillips said. “Now if a customer calls and says ‘my lights blink every day around this time,’ we’re able to provide better support. We can look at the voltage and current readings from that specific time period remotely. We don’t have to actually go and interrogate the meter in person. It’s helping us to troubleshoot… it’s been a very, very useful tool and we’re excited to have it.”
Meter change-outs are based on billing cycles, not location, so newer units are scattered across the city.
Utility crew members will knock on customers’ doors to let them know they will experience a short, two-minute electric service interruption during the change-out. The whole process should take fewer than 20 minutes per household.
Crews will be installing smart meters Mondays through Saturdays during daylight hours.
Phillips said he expects his team to be completed with the residential meter change-outs by July’s end with the exception of new service start-ups.
Though the utility provider is not focusing on consumer-side demand response programs at the moment, AMI does enable utilities to offer time-based rate programs and incentives that encourage customers to reduce peak demand and manage energy consumption and costs. These programs can be used with available customer technologies like in-home displays and programmable communicating thermostats.
After residential units are installed, utilities will prioritize meter change-outs for commercial buildings, which take longer because of the need for more coordination for minimal interruption. The completion goal is the end of 2020.
After the system is fully installed, an “electric planner” will manage the system and implement load management techniques, which would help the utility provider reduce usage and power rates.
Meter reader positions might go away through attrition or employees with those duties might be transferred to other departments, but no definitive decision has been made at this time, according to Phillips.
Although the meters do report power outages, Dothan Utilities still encourages customers to call them in. Using the automated phone system, customers can update their phone number so that it’s linked to their current address.
Anyone with questions or concerns can call 334-615-3302 and select the option “Speak with a representative.” Customer service is available Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.