By Peter Chawaga
By now, it’s clear to many within the water utility industry that Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) can bring a wealth of advantages to their systems. However, the benefits remain much less clear to those that the advanced technology would serve.
Through a combination of remote communication and Big Data management, AMI provides more efficient readings, improved transparency, and the ability to quickly identify leaks and billing errors. But the large capital costs required for installation and concerns over personal data collection can make public acceptance a significant obstacle in bringing AMI to the utilities where it is most needed.
That is why Hahn Public Communications, a public relations firm serving the utility space, put together a report on “The Value of Public Engagement Campaigns in Ensuring the Success of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) Implementation.”
“Public approval is a critical element in the success of any public infrastructure project,” said Sapna Mulki, the director for Hahn’s water practice. “Getting public buy-in ensures the longevity of an AMI project and that it will be fully embraced, thus allowing to fully maximize on its value. Furthermore, public education on a new technology, especially before installation, reduces the element of surprise and mentally prepares the customer for the change.”
Though public buy-in may be an uphill climb for some utilities, there are some actions that can help customers understand the advantages of AMI.
“A challenge arises if the utility is not prepared to tactfully answer questions from the public and decision-makers or to handle attacks from opposition groups on the project,” Mulki said. “A good AMI education campaign involves crafting persuasive and impactful messages to clearly communicate the benefits of AMI to the customer, debunking security- and health-related myths, and using strategic communication channels early on in project implementation.”
And AMI is often its own best advocate. Hahn has found that by presenting insights on water usage to customers in a timely and personalized way through AMI, customers gain an increased understanding of water bills and rate structure, call customer service less often, and feel more empowered to conserve water, among other benefits. By demonstrating these advantages, utilities can promote public acceptance even amid concerns over the cost of adoption.
“Ratepayers will be convinced of the cost when they can see that AMI helps improve quality of service from the utility,” said Mulki. “When people are aware of utility efforts to improve or replace aging or inefficient infrastructure or technology, they are more likely to be approving of AMI. Being transparent on the budget/spending for various infrastructure projects will create more support for utility projects.”
Similarly, the privacy concerns that are so often a sticking point for customer resistance to AMI can be alieved with increased public outreach.
“Explaining in simple terms to customers the steps taken to ensure protection of the data is critical to reassuring them of any privacy concerns they have,” Mulki said. “Stating that only authorized utility personnel and the customer have access to the data is an important point of information to share. In addition, clearly stating that data is only used to improve utility operations, if this is the case.”
But how, specifically, does a utility reach its ratepayers with such information on AMI and how it will help them?
To answer that question, Hahn pointed to a case study from Arlington, TX, in its report. The utility embarked on AMI installation in 2011 and sent letters to customers along with FAQs, notifying them of the switch. However, the utility continued to receive complaints and faced a general lack of understanding from its ratepayers.
In 2013, the city teamed with Texas A&M University for a research project into the data benefits of AMI. It included a website where customers could view their consumption data and 174 of them participated in a survey about their perception of AMI.
The survey indicated that 81 percent of customers gained a better understanding of their water usage and that more than half changed their behavior based on the new access to information.
“The case study from Arlington … is especially insightful because it measures public perceptions toward water, the utility, and AMI,” said Mulki. “The data gathered will help determine how best the utility can interact with customers to provide the insightful information to lead to a behavior change. Through the data, the utility is able to determine how, where, and when customers interact with the web portal, which in turn will allow the former to craft messaging and disseminate it through strategic communications channels.”
While many utilities will be unable to embark on such an ambitious survey of customers, this research and similar projects will be able to inform utilities nationwide about how customers utilize AMI to learn more about their water. If utilities can clearly communicate these benefits to their ratepayers, they will find that AMI adoption comes next.