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Municipal and cooperative utilities cite showing return on investment (ROI) and value from smart grid investments as the No. 1 issue they need to address this year, with addressing ratepayer concerns ranking second, according to a survey conducted by smart grid communications provider Tantalus.

The annual Users Conference survey polled more than 45 of Tantalus' utility customers regarding concerns and investment priorities. According to Tantalus, 41% rank ROI and value from smart grid investments as the top issue, and 28% consider ratepayer concerns a top priority.

The company says these findings mirror trends predicted in early 2013 that as more utilities completed U.S. Department of Energy-funded and basic smart grid network deployments, focus would shift to adding niche applications to leverage initial investments and demonstrate value to customers.

Tantalus reports that add-on applications are the top utility investment priority for this year, which is further evidence to support the trend of demonstrating ROI. Continuing or completing existing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployments ranks second above security enhancements and increased customer education.

Time-of-use rates and demand management - both of which are real-time, data-driven advanced applications that manage loads and rates - are the top two smart grid applications surveyed utilities will implement this year, the company adds.

The survey also asked respondents to rank the value of benefits gained from AMI. Tantalus says the surveyed utilities overwhelmingly flagged the top three responses as the ability to receive outage and restoral notifications, reduction in truck rolls and improved customer service.

The company notes that these results indicate that although the quantity and availability of energy management applications are growing, core drivers for municipal and cooperative utilities remain largely unchanged. Public power decision-makers, Tantalus says, demonstrate a continued commitment to work on implementing technologies that will help them deliver the highest quality power service to their customers at the lowest cost.

According to Tantalus, other key survey findings include the following:

- Other areas of investment for this year named by utility respondents are meter data management, integration into other utility software systems and further deployments of direct load control programs.

- Zero respondents indicated that they believe future strain (e.g., electric vehicles and solar) on the grid would be a top concern for their utility. This shows a further declining trend from just 8% of respondents voicing this concern in 2013.

- Of the utilities that indicated they are planning to hire this year, the majority is seeking to fill positions in meter support and technical engineering, the number of which more than doubled.

"The results of this survey reflect the trends and shifts we've been experiencing with our municipal and cooperative customers," comments Tammy Zucco, chief marketing officer at Tantalus. "The industry as a whole is maturing as many utilities have now completed or are several years into their AMI deployments. We've grown with our customers and are now seeing a much more technology-savvy utility customer base, which is focused on working closely with partners like us to implement results-driven and cost-saving AMI applications."

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