Energy Efficiency

Utilities and data

Even before smart meters, the utility industry was swimming in data about its customers. Now that data is flowing in much faster — every three seconds for some utilities, depending on their technology and software.

This much data benefits the utilities themselves, and others too. App developers are lining up to get their hands on anonymous utility user data. ComEd was recently given the green light by Illinois regulators to share data if customers opt in. The information is vital for building business lines that support the utility of the future.

"Data is essential to helping utilities understand their distribution grid and optimize their investments and quality of service," said Tim Wolf, director of marketing and services for Itron, a grid automation vendor. "Utilities can leverage the power of data to reduce operational costs, improve efficiency and reliability, increase customer satisfaction, and satisfy regulatory requirements — all by allowing analytics to take place where the best outcome occurs."

But before any of that happens, a utility needs to have some rules about its data — where it's stored, who can access it, who can edit it, how it is accessed and when. It's called data governance, and it's step one toward making customer data a useful tool instead of a confusing mess.

At the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Jim Tracy, the chief financial officer, said there was a time when the question of how many customers SMUD serves would yield six different answers from six different locations. SMUD needed to systemize where its data was stored and how.

"Having everything organized and a system whereby everything is cataloged, described — we know where it came from, we know who's maintaining it — creates in and of itself huge efficiencies in terms of eliminating wasted time," Tracy said.

That wasted time was previously spent wandering between departments to find the right information. Now, everything is centralized, and the database can be easily queried. "There's a tremendous amount you can do with that information to improve the efficiency of your organization," Tracy said.

While the operational efficiencies created by well-organized customer data create savings for utilities, that doesn't really resonate with customers, said Val Jensen, senior vice president of customer operations at ComEd. Providing customers with tangible savings they can see, however, drives the point home.

ComEd offers a few options for its customers to engage with their own energy use. In cooperation with the Obama Administration's White House Green Button initiative to provide customers with easy access to their usage data through a web interface, ComEd offered a way for their customers to see their usage and make their own data available to any third party that is certified to use the utility's system. With a recent approval from Illinois regulators, customers can make their data anonymously available to the broader community. This means all those app developers looking to innovate for utilities can comb through anonymous user profiles if customers choose to share. After a year's work making it happen, Jensen wonders what other utilities are waiting for.

"I think the debate in this industry is between those who would agree that we should make these data available and those who believe that these data are so valuable that somehow they're going to sell it to third parties or back to customers, and that will become a new revenue stream," he said. "I just don't believe that's true. The data by themselves are not really useful. They become useful when someone has an application for them. I don't believe that's our industry's core competency."

Meanwhile at SMUD, the utility is hiring statisticians and econometrics experts to examine customer data. Tracy said it could very well be more efficient to employ third-party vendors, but those vendors don't know the customers as well as the utility does.

"We're just beginning to scratch the surface on getting the technology in place that gives customers more flexibility to interact with their meter and make choices around how they use energy — we've got a huge effort over the next five to seven5 -7 years of putting in the pieces that are needed to do that," he said. "The drawback of third parties is that an outside vendor is a black box. You're not exactly sure how their algorithms are working, and when you're trying to work around disaggregating customer loads and teasing out customer usage patterns, you probably want to know more about how the algorithm is put together."

How utilities use their data varies — it depends on the customers and the utility, according to Itron's Wolf. Utilities need to examine where data can create the most value for them. "Sometimes this is in the back office, sometimes at the network level, and sometimes at the local device level," he said.

But whatever application the utility chooses, it's going to make an impact. As Jensen put it, all this data is going to be the lifeblood of the utility of the future. At ComEd, they envision the utility of the future with four layers — core infrastructure on the bottom, planning and operations to manage the flow of all the energy and services, the economic functions of supply and demand, and the transactional platform on top. Today, most customers can usually only buy electricity only from their utility; some can undertake energy efficiency projects, and some can install solar panels. But in the future, there will be many exchanges between many levels of the four-layer utility "organism," Jensen said.

"Data to us is kind of like the blood that flows through those four layers, if you can imagine them as forming one organism," he said. "The data moves from one layer to another, carrying information about what's going on at any given time. It makes it possible for us to nourish this organism."