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Rethinking the meter: The new value proposition

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As we continue along this path through the Analytics Leadership Series of articles for Utility Analytics Weekly, a theme continues to hit me: so much of what we are seeing utilities dive into today is really forcing utility staff from the boardroom to the field to rethink the traditional roles of technology and assets. This came into focus during a recent discussion with Matt Owens of Itron. In his management role at Itron, Matt has responsibility for the software applications that manage meter data, and provide insights and analytics from that data.

Matt and I started the discussion by looking at applications where utilities are seeing the most bang-for-the-buck in this new data-rich environment. This is not as simple and straightforward of a conversation as it might seem at first glance, primarily because there are so many ways that utility folks are quickly learning to apply this data into actionable intelligence. So, to make sense of this, we'll break this into three parts and take a brief look at examples in each area.

The first area is the benefits relating to how utilities can improve their customer operations and ultimately their engagement with customers. While the possibilities are many in this area, Matt referenced one utility that his organization is working with that is using smart meter data to improve customer segmentation, an area that was not possible in the pre-smart meter era. In this example (and even within this niche there are many other examples, too), the utility can learn which individual customers and customer types are triggering the peak load on the grid. With this knowledge in hand, the utility can layer in third-party data that looks at weather, real estate data, and demographics enabling more creative, effective, targeted marketing programs. These marketing programs create, in effect, mass customization that can include incentives, consumer education and even loyalty programs. The net result is that the utility is no longer an amorphous entity that sends them a bill each month; rather it is now their partner in helping them manage their energy spending and rewarding them for energy savings. 

Next, Matt and I discussed grid applications. Matt took the lead stating, "What really stands out here are the vast improvements in outage intelligence and in helping improve outage restoration." He went on to explain, "From Hurricane Sandy, we saw that the utilities with smart meters installed were able to deploy crews more effectively and restore power quicker. The smart meter data also helped speed up the identification of isolated outages, saving money (truck rolls, crew time and so on) while also significantly improving customer service."

Beyond outage management, other examples of the impact of smart meter data abound; here are a few:

Energy theft/energy diversion. As smart meters remove the need for meter readers, utilities no longer have those eyes and ears on the street. But leveraging the smart meter data provides a variety of means to detect energy theft, from simple meter tampering to much more sophisticated diversion methods, to reduce the amount of theft.

Voltage monitoring. With the availability of voltage monitoring at the customer and feeder level, utilities will be able to improve power quality, which is particularly important to many commercial and industrial customers, and will become increasingly important as electric vehicles and renewables are integrated into the distribution system more pervasively over the next few years.

Conservation voltage reduction (CVR). Having voltage data at every meter, the utility is able to evaluate the range of voltage throughout the system. This provides a feeder-level view of voltage distribution that is used to identify opportunities for implementing CVR strategies, then calibrating and monitoring on an ongoing basis. Matt notes that "This is really a huge energy efficiency project that can substantially shave peak demand and reduce energy consumption." 

A third area to consider is around asset management. Matt cites an example with one of their customers, a large investor-owned utility in the western U.S. At one particular time this utility was experiencing a lot of load growth in certain parts of its service territory, much of which was driven by the growth in the use of air conditioning and flat screen TVs. The utility aggregated smart meter data to the transformer -- creating a load profile for each transformer (weather data was also incorporated). Using this information, the utility was able to predict the loading of specific transformers that were most likely to be overloaded and thus determine which transformers were likely to blow. This led to a proactive transformer replacement program that, again, saved money by prolonging the life of these valuable assets and significantly improved customer service.

In our discussion, Matt and I conversed on a broader swath of improvements via smart meter data that utilities are seeing today and some that are on the horizon (maybe that's another article!). It really is a brave new world where incremental thinking is often not enough; indeed, rethinking the customer and utility relationship and the business processes therein are just the beginning.

Mike Smith is a vice president with the Utility Analytics Institute. 


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