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Compiled by Chris Anderson

An increasing number of utilities, especially electricity providers, are turning to automated meter reading systems. The meters provide a number of customer benefits:

• Eliminates monthly use estimates on bills

• Can show daily and hourly electricity use

• Indicates voltage surges and their possible sources

• May reduce customer costs through an hourly report showing a use spike occurring when no one is home, meaning an appliance may be left on inadvertently

• Allows for automatic disconnect/reconnect for customers who move

• Increases ability to identify specific outage locations and respond to them quickly

• Eliminates the need for customers to read meters

By Chris Anderson

DOWNS — New technology will allow an increasing number of home and business owners to know their electrical use by the hour and get quicker responses to power outages.

Those are just a few reasons utilities are turning to automated meter reading systems, or AMR. Corn Belt Energy Corp. at Downs and Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative at Paxton are leading the way in Central Illinois.

Ameren Corp. also signed a letter of intent with Cellnet Technology Inc. in September to install 1 million automated electric and gas meters in Illinois during the next four years. And Nicor Gas has launched a pilot program in the northern part of its territory.

By 2008, Corn Belt Energy hopes to replace 31,000 meters for its customers in Central and Northern Illinois. The project, which began in August, has already replaced 3,650 meters.

"A lot of cooperatives in Illinois are making the change. We're able to read meters without the worry of weather, dogs or locked gates," said Jerry Durflinger, Corn Belt Energy member services manager.

Durflinger noted meter replacement will impact 72 part-time meter readers employed by the cooperative. He added it has become increasingly difficult for the co-op to find part-time meter readers when someone leaves the company.

Eastern Illini members read their own meters monthly. Dave Champion, Eastern Illini president and chief executive officer, said members are thrilled not only at the prospect of having their meters read automatically but also saving $1 million to $2 million for the cooperative they own over the next few years.

"We're in the second year of a five-year project to change over 13,000 meters. So far, we've got 3,015 new meters installed," said Champion. "The new meters will tell us if they've been tampered with. We can also do analytical reports for members about voltage issues and power outages."

Corn Belt Energy's system relies on technology provided by Distribution Control Systems Inc. of St. Louis. It involves a two-way signal sent via electrical power lines.

To read a meter, a Corn Belt Energy employee can enter a serial number of an individual meter. The signal goes to a substation that moves the signal to the selected home or business. Once the information gets collected, the signal travels back through the substation to Corn Belt Energy's office.

The process allows for more accurate monthly meter readings, speeds up billing time and increases convenience for members moving in and out of the area by disconnecting and reconnecting at Corn Belt's office. Officials will also be able to manage the total electricity load for the co-op by controlling specific substations.

The system further allows employees to identify every member during an outage, which reduces response time by linemen. Durflinger said linemen could have restored power to members during the 2004 Thanksgiving storm 12 to 24 hours sooner had the system been in place.

The new meters don't look much different from those being replaced except a serial number at the top of the meter. It takes only a few minutes for a meter to be replaced. The old meters are being recycled by a Decatur firm.

"We think we can save $400,000 per year with the system," said Durflinger. "It's another tool to help members identify how much electricity they're using and when."

Ultimately, the system will not only allow members to report an outage as they normally do but also receive a report via cell phone text message or e-mail that the outage has been noted and when electrical service will be restored.

"Very shortly, we'll have real time outage reports on our Web site that anyone can access. It will be one layer in the outage management system. Eventually, we'll have software to integrate GPS (global positioning system maps) to identify which members are without power," said Durflinger.


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