South Dakota-based Black Hills Corp.'s natural gas utility operations in five states -- Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming -- are switching customers of Black Hills Energy to smart meters. Earlier in August the installation of new Itron advanced gas meters began.

The utility is banking on Itron's "ChoiceConnect" technology to provide flexibility in collecting advanced meter data from up to 330,000 of the meters in its states with gas distribution operations. Expected to be spread over a three-year installation period, not all the utility's customers will get the new meters because as a rural-based operation there are groups of customers that are to widely dispersed to make it economic for remote reading of meters in their geographical areas, a Black Hills spokesperson told NGI.

The new gas metering system will allow the Black Hills utility to collect daily and hourly customer meter data, offering increased operating efficiencies and what the meter manufacturer claims are "enhanced levels" of customer service through increased accuracy and timelines of information. Access for both the customer and utility to more frequent meter data means billing disputes can be resolved more quickly and without extra service visits by the utility.

Terry Perkins, Black Hills director for customer account services and process improvements, said the utility has welcomed the new technologies and capabilities with the advanced metering system. "The ability to collect advanced meter data will offer us a wide range of operational improvements today and into the future."

The utility is also expecting that over time it will be able to better forecast overall natural gas loads for its distribution utility operations.

The utility will be able to use the drive-by system to collect 40 days of meter data. "The ability to collect data logging with a mobile or fixed network system enables Black Hills to deploy a hybrid collection system or migrate between systems, depending on evolving business needs," Perkins said. The system also offers different ways to collect the data. Diversity in the geographic areas covered requires that Black Hills Energy's new metering system be adaptable to different requirements.

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