The technical staffs of NRTC and 4-County Electric Power Association, Columbus, MS, got together recently to begin a multi-year project to build an innovative advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network based on Itron Gen5 technology. It is traditional to hold a such a gathering for major projects like this, but the 4-County kick-off was a first.
“This was the first time we ever did a remote kick-off. We always go in person,” said NRTC’s Cate Immenschuh, who is the project manager for the AMI build. But like so many other business functions during the COVID-19 pandemic, a face-to-face meeting was not possible. Despite the meeting’s socially distant situation, the parties were able to cover all the necessary ground to move forward. The project is now in the equipment acquisition phase, which is likely to last through July with network construction beginning soon afterward.
4-County Operations Engineer Jacob Fulper said that NRTC’s project management team is one of the best aspects of working on the AMI deployment. “As the project leader at 4-County, I am comforted to know that Cate will be the one reminding me to get things done and helping me line up the next set of deliverables in order to reach the next milestone,” he said. “Furthermore, NRTC already knows Itron’s processes, and Cate will serve as an experienced guide to navigate those processes.”
Itron communications technology offers advantages for utilities operating in rural areas with dense vegetation. Gen5 has supported successful deployments in the millions over difficult topologies in the investor-owned utility market. Automated Gen5 communication protocols improve performance for customers and ruggedized equipment contributes to low failure rates. During 4-County’s evaluation process, it seemed that Itron offered “the most rugged and robust hardware in the AMI market,” Fulper said. said.
The network will reach members through an unlicensed mesh wireless system with backhaul mainly through ethernet connections and some through local cellular service. Fulper praised the Gen5 “auto-ratchet feature that automatically adjusts the communications speed between nodes in the RF mesh.”
4-County’s main goal is to replace the current powerline-carrier networking system with the full speed and features of AMI. The former network had ended its product lifetime and its former vendor was no longer supporting it. As a result, the cooperative will have several new network improvements.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the project is that it is one of the earliest integrations of Gen5 with utility billing software systems from SEDC. The two technologies blend to improve customer care for rural cooperative members. NRTC is also managing the first Gen5/SEDC integration, which began at Hart Electric Membership Corp. late last year.
For residential metering, 4-County will install the Gen5 Centron II. Commercial and industrial metering will be based on the new Itron Centron III, also integrated with Gen5 communication. “4-County members will be among the first to get the new Itron III meter,” Immenschuh said.
Going forward, COVID will continue to offer some challenges. Further training of the 4-County staff will be over remote meetings as well, she said.
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