Utilities businesses can now marry smart meters with cloud-based intelligence to boost customer service and attain eco-friendliness simultaneously.
Data is now an essential commodity in every industry. This is especially true in the utility industry, which is reeling from the financial losses of the pandemic, squeezed margins, and in many regions, difficult regulatory pressure.
This pressure may cause many utilities services to delay major new projects in the short-term and instead focus on fortifying what they have: that is where the data comes in.
Globally, utilities have made a significant investment in smart meters but have only scratched the surface of what is possible with that information. And that does not even include the millions of data points that internal utility systems, such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, are collecting daily.
In this new data-rich world, utilities need to leverage their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) investments to strengthen both the customer and operational sides of their business. Using the Cloud, analytics, AI and machine learning to harvest and mine that data for actionable insights has huge potential to drive better operational efficiency, cost-cutting, customer engagement, and more. Here is how:
- Facilitating better customer relationships
The utility grid is becoming much more than a two-way connection between customer and utility. It is transforming into a dynamic, multi-dimensional relationship between customers, utilities, and a plethora of energy resources, from the solar panels on rooftops to the electric vehicles on the roads.
As the smart grid begins to live up to its full potential, utilities can live up to theirs, going from commodity providers into market makers that connect customers to a broad spectrum of services, from electric vehicle (EV) charging to buying back unused energy from a customer’s personal energy storage devices, such as solar panels.
The smart meter has opened the door to the data needed to do so, but the cloud and analytics are the key to unlocking that data’s full potential. Last year, one Japanese power grid company hit a milestone of deploying seven million smart meters with an AMI solution. With this move, the firm was able to improve visualization of energy usage trends to improve the efficiency of its power generation and power transmission facilities.
For example, the utility can use meter data to see when a customer is reaching its target energy usage and alert their people. Likewise, the utility can see how much energy a household has used from its rooftop solar photovoltaic output and allow customers to divert excess energy to a family member.
Furthermore, by analyzing this data, the firm has plans to enable electricity retailers in their region to continually refine and improve service, including fee calculation and flexible pricing. This could include implementing Time of Use (TOU) rates to support the efficient use of electric power by customers while reducing energy load during peak demand times.
- Fueling new revenue sources
One area that is attracting growing interest from utilities is electric vehicles (EVs), whose demand continues to rise despite the tough economic market. Not only do EVs stand to support certain regions’ aggressive decarbonization goals, but they also can offer utilities a promising new revenue source. But at what cost to already over-taxed grids?
If the growth of electric vehicles continues at its present rate, utilities will grapple with peak load impacts at the grid edge, particularly on hot days. A single EV has the potential to double the demand of a typical home. Therefore, in order to balance the grid, utilities must understand customers’ charging patterns and be able to encourage them to charge after peak hours when there are no constraints.
For utilities that have embraced AMI, the technology that will make EVs a dynamic force in energy balancing already exists. The next step is leveraging the Cloud to speed and enhance data collection and applying analytics to inform decision-making on how to best balance supply and demand on the grid. For example, the record heat seen in areas including Australia and California last year is fostering even more interest in Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G), or bidirectional charging. In this model, EVs effectively act as energy storage modules that utilities can use to ‘buy back’ energy to send power back onto the grid when needed.
Leveraging AMI data to get ahead of the EV movement is a great opportunity for utilities to provide leadership by creating smart charging programs that engage customers and help them become more active participants of the grid. Progressive utilities are looking at more flexible, cloud-based meter data management and customer information systems that can quickly ingest data to offer valuable insights.
- Meeting aggressive decarbonization goals
Countries all over the globe are recognizing the impacts of climate change and putting aggressive decarbonization goals in place. AMI investments that can feed continuous data into core back-and-front end-systems are critical in this quest.
For example, one French utilities conglomerate is using smart meters and meter data management to further its vision of improving energy management and enhancing customer satisfaction. The new digitalized functionalities are said to be critical to its ability to deliver a natural gas network that fosters energy transition for its territories. It will also use data to continue to reimagine customer service, accelerate decarbonization, and increase the flexibility and reliability of the network.
Across Asia, decarbonization or reaching net-zero carbon emissions is also a growing movement. Singapore is committed to reducing its “Emissions Intensity (EI)—the amount of GHGs emitted per dollar GDP—by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030, and to stabilize emissions with the aim of peaking around 2030.” To reach these aggressive goals, utilities need to take a holistic look at their operations and where emissions are coming from.
In the USA, one utilities agency created an Excessive Leak Program and Water Loss Prevention team within its customer care department. Leveraging smart meter data and intelligence from its AMI system, it was able to set alerts to identify customers that had water continuously flowing or abnormally high or suspicious bills.
Affected customers are proactively engaged through a series of automated communications and visual cues on their customer portal, or their case is escalated to personnel trained in mitigating leaks. In just a year-and-a-half, the program had resulted in 91% of excessive leak cases being solved in under 90 days and had reduced the number of at-home leak service calls, cutting yearly truck roll mileage by 30,000 and reducing carbon emissions.
These examples show that smart meters, coupled with modern cloud-based customer information systems and advanced analytics, are accelerating innovation and widening the gap between leading and lagging utilities. The benefits go far beyond enhancing billing—by utilities to improve customer engagement, operational agility and environmental sustainability.