Easy access to Utility Data – Taking the Drudgery out of Conservation!

Written by: Marion Fraser, of Fraser & Company

 See Press Release

 Tales of “Smart Grid” are constantly swirling around the world but is the smart grid real? How will it impact us as energy users and customers? Will it really help us conserve and get smarter? Is it really worth the effort for the utility to show the end user any results of their smart grid efforts? All of these are good questions. Many of the answers depend on your utility, the regulatory frameworks they work in and the politics that surrounds the marketplace.

Utility Data Conservation

Let’s look at what utilities are up to in the energy industry. Everyone we talked to is working on changing their systems to manage the growing information received from “Smart Initiatives” (e.g., smart meters, demand response, etc.). In today’s world, we call it “Big Data”. Well the fact is there has always been “Big Data” in the energy industry. Utilities have had to struggle with information and technology since the first energy infrastructure was created. The difference between the past and today is they only needed to deal with it for themselves. They have historically connected systems and data together that they require. Much of this data connectivity has been done manually, or through customized processes using legacy systems. They need to give us the data that is essential to understand our usage. This will allow for conservation. What we need is easy access to utility data!

In the world arena, times are changing and its happening quickly. For the first time ever in 2014, Internet usage in the US was mostly through mobile applications, not PCs. January stats show that mobile apps made up 47%, mobility browsers accounted for 8% and PCs only 45% of Internet Traffic In fact, the mobility industry changes about every 4 months to try to keep up with this craving. We all spend 2 to 3 hours each day, on average, on our mobile device, and we want our information there for us to manage when we feel like it. The thought of going to a utility website with a user name and password (mobile friendly or not) to get our utility bill or information seems backwards to most of us. In fact, it has been shown that we are likely now, more than ever, not to do it. Our craving towards mobility is increasing rapidly but the Utilities are focused on their websites to allow you to see your information — if you go to their website, if you have a password and if you can remember your password. Is this strategy outdated?

Well, yes it is. But why is it so hard for utilities to adapt to mobility? Utilities’ focus is ”keeping the lights on”, so we can all live in a modern society; that is what they understand and do best. In fact, most of the money spent on upgrading the utility infrastructure has been spent on modernizing their own internal infrastructure. There has been little effort to share the resulting information across the industry or with customers, so that the benefit of smart technologies can become more widespread, and allow customers to more easily get the information they need, when they want it, to manage their energy use – not just their bill payments.

One daunting issue for utilities is our society generally, and the mobile data world specifically, is moving quicker than utilities can handle. Traditionally, their approach to change is caution. Historically, changing anything within their infrastructure or data systems have caused major issues. Even if all went well, the costs were high.

YET, our need for information and desire to have it in our hands NOW is part of our everyday experience for much of what we do, from online ordering to communicating with friends. In the energy sector, does mobility, interoperability and modernization that benefits customers have to take a back seat to the hard work of managing energy networks? …. Maybe or maybe not!

It’s assumed that the costs to change utility systems to deal with the customers’ growing needs is high but the real issue may be understanding how to implement mobility in the right, cost effective, and timely way. To switch focus on providing value to the end customer in the form of modernization of data requires a different mindset. Many utility staff are using mobile data in their personal life, but they alone cannot effect the enterprise wide change that is necessary within their organization.

What really needs to change so we don’t feel that the utility is ignoring us as customers? The utilities need to jump ahead to interact with us the way every other business does. It is really the only option, or their value to the customer will eventually diminish.

To consider the position the utilities are in, let’s look at the customer. Conservation of energy has become a global initiative and conservation is no longer just about changing light bulbs. It is all about harnessing the data of energy use to be able to change how and when energy is used to achieve the full benefits of conservation. Whether in a commercial building or one’s home, operating your equipment and understanding the impact of changes to that operation is every bit as important as using high-efficiency products. Will the energy user see utilities embrace change?

There is a silver lining. There has been a concentrated effort by some utilities’ executives working with private industry and educational institutions to resolve this issue. In North America, the “Green Button” initiative has seen some progress in energy data standards, but crossing the mobility barrier has been slower than planned.

In Ontario, there has been a group of utilities that are looking to provide a game changing solution creating data conversion standards that minimizes the effect of change. The solution embraces data mobility to enable customers to access their data, and because it is their data, not the utilities’ data, to share it through apps with firms or internal staff can help them manage, not just pay their energy bills.

The goal is to create a user-friendly, 2-way communication link between the utility and customer, as well as across the utilities themselves (Electricity, Water and Natural Gas). The focus is on being cost effective and minimizing the change to the utility infrastructure, so the market can quickly be “enabled”. This enablement will allow customers to manage their information consistent with the concept articulated by Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner: “Privacy by Design”. It will also engage the mobility community without time consuming and costly interruptions of common utility practices. First, it was only a concept; but soon it will become a reality.

Along the way, this group has also found potential savings and options to use the mobility industry to their advantage, as well as for the good of the customers, but it will also require support from the governments and regulators to ensure a common focus. This solution has the potential to show the utility employees that a quick step to mobility can help the utility evolve. Only time will tell, as adoption of the solution set is still needed.

We need better access to data held by the utilities and tools to use it and we need it now. We need easy integration to other technologies without going through the utility or interrupting their processes. We need customer applications designed by the mobility industry, so utilities can assist us in times of need or when we want to conserve energy. We don’t need to rely on the utility to integrate to third party Apps. This will only take too much time, waste money, and divert the utilities from their core functions. At the end of the day, customers need Apps that benefit them.

Let’s be fair, the Utilities need something too – Help to remove market and data barriers so they can manage operations and promote conservation, educate consumers and pursue utility innovation. Customers need to have someone properly manage security and privacy over the mobility networks, so everyone can focus on understanding energy usage, rather than just paying for it.

Easy access to utility data – Just another Scam or is it reality? This is no scam. It’s reality. The utility needs to focus on activities to ensure we can keep on living as we do, but we need energy information and for this to happen we need to be part of the solution and help.

October 20th, 2014

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