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Smart meter billing ‘kinks’ being worked out

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Reports of hydro customers in southern Ontario being inaccurately charged made headlines last week, but the CEO of the Fort Frances Power Corp. said any such problems with the system will be worked out prior to local customers switching to “time of use” rates next summer.

The Toronto Star reported last week that hydro bills from five utilities don’t meet federal requirements, the utilities have been inaccurately charging at least 150,000 people for electricity, and the problem must be fixed before Jan. 1, 2012.

FFPC CEO Joerg Ruppenstein said Ontario utilities have formed a working group to work with the province to work on the billing problem, and hopefully the kinks will be worked out prior to the FFPC going to “time of use” rates next June.

“Measurement Canada has stepped into the smart meter initiative in Ontario and has identified several measurement concerns around people that are billed, and the key is, on ‘time of use’ rates,” he noted.

“The current billing structure in place that some utilities are billing on, these pilot utilities in southern Ontario . . . does not satisfy Measurement Canada’s requirements.

“So they’ve assembled a working group with representatives from the meter suppliers, with representatives from Measurement Canada Independent Electricity System Operators [IESO], with representatives from the [Ontario Energy Board], and all interested stakeholders, and they’re trying to ensure that Measurement Canada’s billing requirements are met,” Ruppenstein stressed.

He said Measurement Canada is requiring that “register reads” be presented to customers on their bill.

With “time of use” billing, electricity bills must indicate a “register read” (how much power has been consumed between the first day of the month and the last day of the month), as well as hourly readings which add up to the total register read for the month.

But in the instances reported in southern Ontario, the hydro customers apparently were not presented with “register reads” on their bills, which led to inaccurate charges, and that’s something Measurement Canada, which is a higher authority than the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), has a concern with.

Ruppenstein said the OEB has come out with mandatory “time of use” dates by utility, and that all of the Northwestern Ontario utilities are required to transition to “time of use” rates by June 1, 2011.

But he added that date is based on the assumption that all of Measurement Canada’s issues are sorted out by then, and the Meter Data Management/Repository (MDMR) system is ready to allow the FFPC to switch to “time of use” rates.

MDMR is the entity where all utilities will be sending their meter data on a daily basis once “time of use” rates are in effect.

“As we approach that June 1 date, and we have some updates from the Measurement Canada working group to resolve these issues, that will tell us more whether or not that June 1 timeline is realistic,” said Ruppenstein.

“Our standpoint, and the industry standpoint, is that before we transition to ‘time of use’ rates, we’d like to make sure that all of Measurement Canada’s requirements are met because they are a federal agency,” he noted.

Since the problem lies with a billing system software, and not actual equipment (e.g., smart meters), Ruppenstein clarified that any changes that will have to be made will not involve the FFPC having to replace any hardware it already has bought and installed.

“We might have to do a software update, which we can do to allow these requirements to be met, but by no means do we have to go buy new meters to replace the smart meters,” he stressed.

“The issue is by no means that big. The equivalent would be a software fix—like if you run a Windows system and you get a Windows update, same kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, Ruppenstein said the installation of smart meters to FFPC customers is almost complete, noting only 200 of 3,800 still have to be installed at local residences and businesses.

Those installations will resume in another two weeks.

As well, the FFPC made the transition to automatic meter reading at the end of June.

Instead of having someone go around to FFPC customers to get readings, the smart meters record electricity consumption information on an hourly basis and report it—via wireless technology—back to one of six data collectors that are located at strategic places in town (they work similar to cellphone towers).

These, in turn, relay that information back to control computers operated by the FFPC.

“The transition went very well,” noted Ruppenstein. “We’re starting to utilize some of the technology deployed, which is exciting.

“It’s a new chapter.”

Ruppenstein said the next step is connecting the local meter data system to the provincial one (the aforementioned MDMR) and be sure the interface is working properly.

MDMR’s function is ensure all of the billing data is correct, and eventually, it may become the means by which a customer will be able to go through a web portal and check on their meter data.

“It’s something we’ll work on and test early in the new year,” Ruppenstein said.

He explained the transition to the new system will be significant because the data required to execute a bill now is small (i.e., the difference between the current month’s read and the read from the month before) compared to the data required for “time of use” billing (a read for every hour of every day of the month).

“On a technical level, there’s a tremendous amount of data that has to be processed,” Ruppenstein explained.

“That interface definitely has to be working.”

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