When Mobility Meets the Energy Industry
Written by: Keith Houghton
History shows us that different industries embrace emerging technologies with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In the fledgling days of the World Wide Web, the early adopters saw the potential to interact more comprehensively with their customers, improving customer satisfaction and reducing the likelihood that the customer would migrate to a competitor.
With the emergence of the mobile revolution, fuelled largely by social media, these early adopters were in the perfect position to deliver their content to handheld devices, allowing the consumer to be continuously capable of obtaining information whenever they wanted.
So why haven’t most utilities used the Internet to interact with their customers particularly on mobile platforms? Maybe they have no fear of losing a customer to a competitor, since most customers are franchised (tied to a particular utility); maybe it’s because they believe the commodity they are selling is relatively simple – a certain amount of product at a fixed price once a month or so; maybe it’s because their minds are focused on other things like keeping the lights on. Some analysts even say that in the face of an ageing workforce, utilities are struggling to find competent electrical engineers to keep those lights on, let alone recruit IT professionals who could modernise information delivery.
Whatever the reason, the utilities use of the Internet and mobile technology to interact with their consumers has been sparse. Things are beginning to change with Electricity Markets around the world facilitating competition, which means customers may no longer be franchised and utilities can offer multiple “products”. On the other side of the fence, consumers are more and more interested in preserving the environment and making their use of resources as efficient as possible. Even in jurisdictions where there is no Market in place, Governments are putting pressure on utilities to foster efficiency improvements and offer products based on renewable resources.
Now a new business driver has emerged, the Smart Grid. The Smart Grid is, simplistically, the overlaying of modern Information and Communications Technology (ICT) on what is essentially a dumb electrical infrastructure. No matter how comprehensively the utility implements a Smart Grid vision, one common component is almost always in place, Smart Meters. Smart metering delivers to the utility vastly more information on customers’ consumption patterns since meters can be read sub-hourly if desired. This data is not only valuable to the utility, but would also be valuable to the individual consumer if they had full electronic access to it. By analysing their own consumption patterns, consumers are empowered to make changes that are both beneficial to themselves (e.g. cost) and to the utility (e.g. peak shaving), but to be really useful the data has to be delivered in a simple, easy way along with other information, such as billing information and be available whenever and wherever the consumer desires it.
So let’s imagine for a moment a scenario where utilities see the light (sorry about the pun) and embrace mobile Internet technology and all the possibilities it offers; how could we, as customers, interact with this forward-thinking utility? Obviously we could receive far more data on our consumption patterns; we could receive information on new products and services; we could receive help and advice on how we can conserve energy and reduce bills; but, we can also become a true asset to the provider, for example sending information to a utility on a power outage / a line down / a leak (true one-to-one communications). We could also help build the Smart Grid by allowing others to use our information by connecting with other technologies. The possibilities are endless and only limited by the imagination of our modern utility and the consumer.
For many utilities, a positive interaction with the consumer via a mobile and Internet-based platform is still not a high priority. The traditional mindset is to keep the lights on and ensure the safety of both its workers and its consumers. Also, many utilities in the world only play lip service to the idea of conservation and energy reduction, since selling less product may mean lower revenues. Even if the utility cannot make the quantum leap into the 21st century on their own, all is not lost. There are now a few companies, not only with extensive experience in the utility business, but also extensive experience in IT, who are able to offer outsourced services enabling the utility to provide the consumer with personal data on both mobile and desktop devices. Not only that, outsourced services can be very cost effective with the utility only having to pay a few cents per customer per month to deliver an information delivery service; this is way below the cost of a postage stamp!
Screaming Power has developed a template application that runs on mobile devices and enables multiple utility types to deliver personalised content with very little effort on their part. The original application simply took billing data, converted that information into a QR code and printed it on the consumer’s bill. The consumer would then scan this barcode using a hand-held device and have access to their consumption data as well as all their billing data. The application has moved on considerably since then and now “enables” everyone to automatically receive / send information, including personalised billing data without the need to do scanning, to assist the customer on education and conservation. The application is fully interactive, with the utility able to send timely information and the consumer able to directly respond and help the utility by assisting on administrative (e.g., registering for conservation programs) and operational tasks (e.g., outage notification). Additional features include the ability for consumers (including energy / conservation managers) to import or export energy data from various sources, as well as provide data in a secure manner to third parties that can use it for more detailed conservation and energy use analysis. The platform standardizes billing information across utilities and jurisdictions, while providing the necessary APIs so that third party applications can be accommodated easily while adhering to security and privacy policies, including “Privacy by Design”. With input from app users, there are new developments in the pipeline such as management of conservation initiatives to customer self-education and forecasting future energy usage and budgets. The possibilities are truly endless and Screaming Power effectively provides the basic toolkit and the glue to stick all these applications together. A subset of Screaming Power’s mobile tool box has been released on the BlackBerry World for free. The solution focuses on enabling Energy / Conservation Managers but there is so much more coming. Applications in other mobile operating systems, including Android and iOS, are on their way and these applications will be released soon.
Many industries these days have data on call, 24 x 7 through our mobile devices. We can get up to date banking details, information on our mobile and Internet usage, and access to TV and radio with a touch of a button. Why is it different with core services like electricity, natural gas and water? There is a concern that this is rocket science and the industry doesn’t need to get involved with mobile technology. The truth is, it’s inevitable that all key industries will become part of the mobile eco system and Screaming Power has the tools today to help the energy industry now.
We are using our mobile devices more than our PC, while some utilities are still making plans to tweak their website or email PDFs to us. Utilities are in the fortunate position that they can make the transition from no IT solution to a full-blown mobile data delivery system without going through the pains other industries endured while the World Wide Web was maturing – all we have to do is show them the light!
February 25, 2015