While the COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly every aspect of our lives, the need to maintain a secure grid and keep the lights on remains in the forefront for utilities. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has been instrumental in helping utilities maintain their revenue flow and manage several remote operations during the pandemic.
For many businesses, COVID-19 had rapid, expansive, and tragic impact. Businesses were quickly forced to fundamentally alter their interactions with employees and customers. Business leaders had to quickly weigh the value of prudence against the cost to operations that would come with a shift to close offices and storefronts, and transition their workforce to remote or work-from-home locations. The lingering impact of COVID-19 is not only in the speed that businesses had to adjust but also in the duration.
Like a looming hurricane, COVID-19's approach was seen weeks out, but the magnitude could only be guessed when it hit shore. Now, more than three months since social distancing guidelines were put into effect, many states are struggling to find the right balance of health guidelines and operation restrictions. Likewise, utilities are struggling to reestablish an equilibrium for day-to-day business operations. Businesses and communities are still grappling with the human loss that transcends the impact to sales and operations.
Utilities have not been immune to COVID-19. As the market shuttered commercial and industrial job sites and load patterns have shifted, utilities' critical role in powering society has changed. It has since become every utility's struggle to ensure that uninterrupted operation and delivery continue while taking care to adhere to the necessary social distancing guidelines to safeguard its customers and employees.
AMI, a tool designed for meter-to-cash transactions and over-the-air reads for billing, has allowed utilities to maintain a steady revenue stream while reducing the need for physical contact.
Traditional use cases for AMI enabled social distancing long before it was needed — providing the ability to read meters and disconnect/reconnect without putting employees in direct proximity to customers. Physical distancing, however, has impacted both employee to customer and employee to employee interactions. The AMI platform has intentionally enabled changes there as well. Paper orders are no longer handed from person to person and, in more advanced settings, an AMI platform can enable remote work through the cloud.
The ability to retrieve outage notifications and ping both meters and network equipment allows utilities to more accurately pinpoint issues, direct maintenance efforts, and confirm return to service, while limiting physical interaction with the customer. Additionally, automation can be applied across the AMO solution stack. For those who were previously buried under the weight of trouble tickets, automation in AMI can help both people and organizations shift away from managing monotonous order queues into identifying root causes and solving complex problems.
Even with social distancing in place, customer experience can be maintained despite a low- or no-touch approach. Utilities have generally put a moratorium on disconnects for nonpayment, but move-ins and move-outs continue. Customers can request this service over the phone and utilities can remotely turn on/off service, while gathering accurate start/stop read information. This keeps everyone safe while operations run smoothly.
For utilities, like people, COVID-19 is about finding the opportunity to thrive. Resiliency for utilities is not defined solely by the ability to survive the storm but also to recover from it, learn from it, and stand stronger and ready for the next storm. Finding the hidden lessons and opportunities to innovate and improveis what will enable utilities to be more resilient.
Ultimately, AMI is delivering results for utilities and benefits for customers, fulfilling the promises advocated over the last two decades. Utilities are achieving cost efficiencies as they leverage AMI technology solutions to collect usage, connect and disconnect service, and target their troubleshooting efforts. They continue to integrate AMI technologies with other core utility systems to drive a holistic view of utility operations. And, increased automation is enabling utility workers to focus on higher value work.
While the economic benefits are clear, in the time of COVID-19, utilities also continue to extend their culture of safety. Employees are able to do more work remotely than ever before, thereby limiting physical exposure. The utility leverages available data to maintain grid resiliency and quickly respond to customer needs. Customers continue to receive a high quality of customer service with reduced physical contact. Everyone wins.