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Rich in data, how will utilities invest their digital-era wealth?

Apr 10, 2019 3 MIN. READ

Right now, utilities are sitting on mountains of data—the equivalent of half of YouTube's annual uploads—in the era of residential smart meters.

It's a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. Data is valued at $3 trillion globally in today's economy, but electric utilities often lack the resources to mine or manage the deluge of information coming from over 70 million smart meters in the U.S.

Many utilities searching for the key to a healthier grid don't realize that it's right under their (and their customers') doormats. Data holds valuable insights on household energy usage, 24/7/365.

Smart meters are just the beginning. The proliferation of distributed energy and IoT devices promises an even greater information bonanza. Appliance sensors, smart thermostats, electric vehicles will all be 'talking' to the grid about their electricity usage—and customer patterns and preferences. Data will inform the next wave of customer engagement—one that's adaptive to grid needs and creates customer value. Here are a few ways to harness yours:

Putting data to work

Making sense of this growing data set means producing an energy "fingerprint," a unique picture of each customer that allows utilities to plan and deliver service in a more targeted fashion—an approach that fosters greater alignment of energy usage with utility grid and supply needs, lowers prices and allows for more timely system upgrades. Data may even reveal new products that customers need, creating revenue-generating opportunities for utilities.

The question for utilities becomes: How do you gain actionable insight—at a faster rate than your unregulated competitors? Your advantage lies in your established relationship with every household and business in your territory. Data can enhance that relationship.

Consider power outages, for example. During the pre-smart grid era, utilities relied on calls from customers to learn that the lights were out—but only about 20 percent of customers would make the call.

Smart meters provide actionable insights, for example, they send a “last gasp” signal when the power goes out. Based on the number and location of ‘last gasps’, utilities can discern the general location and extent of outages. With this knowledge, they can make repairs more quickly. And we all know that quicker restoration makes for happier customers.

How data makes the grid healthier

Here are a few other ways data contributes to a healthier grid:

  • The right products to the right customers (at the right time)
    By coupling usage data with such information as demographics and age of home and size, a utility can see what homes might benefit from upgrades to heating, air conditioning or other products. Customers are more apt to respond to a marketing pitch for an energy efficient upgrade when they need to replace old appliances.
  • A greener grid
    Coupling certain demographics, like home age and size, with energy-use data helps utilities identify neighborhoods likely to adopt rooftop solar, community solar and electric vehicle charging. Offering these products helps utilities achieve clean energy goals.
  • Proactive infrastructure upgrades
    Meter data reveals trends that offer insight into the need for infrastructure upgrades or non-wires alternatives to defer capital investments. Many utilities are considering the role of targeted distributed energy resources as a means to address grid constraints or upgrades, as opposed to traditional "wires" solutions.

Smart meter data is just the beginning. The electric grid is a popular connecting point for a rapidly growing ecosystem of IoT products. Verizon's State of the IoT report found a 41 percent boost in its IoT network connections within the energy and utilities industry between 2016 and 2017 alone.

From sensors to solar panels, devices are producing data that can be used to further improve the health of our grid. A treasure trove awaits the data-savvy utility—and its customer.

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