The Infosys Utilities Blog seeks to discuss and answer the industry’s burning Smart Grid questions through the commentary of the industry’s leading Smart Grid and Sustainability experts. This blogging community offers a rich source of fresh new ideas on the planning, design and implementation of solutions for the utility industry of tomorrow.

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April 27, 2012

What is Customer "Empowerment" anyway, and How Can Utilities Get Started?

There has been much discussion about utilities needing to provide greater customer "empowerment" as a requisite for the emerging "smart grid" world we are now entering. But beyond this nice buzzword, what does "empowerment" really mean, and how are utilities supposed to start down this path of providing it? If we look at our industry today, energy and water consumers are generally not provided with a lot of information related to how they consume what utilities deliver - namely electricity, gas and water. We are typically operating within a paradigm of providing consumers with a monthly bill of "consumption" with no meaningful presentation of data that allows consumers to take action. Certainly there are many utilities that are well down the path here with some sophisticated programs, but generally speaking we are all just beginning this journey together. "Empowerment" is important on several fronts: 1) against the backdrop of more efficient production and consumption of resources, consumers represent a critical element to meeting these objectives, and 2) in an increasingly competitive industry landscape, consumers will be drawn to utilities (including energy retailers) that best "empower" them in how they can more effectively consume energy and water. Cost savings is one element, but the "green" element is also important to many consumers. There are many pieces that can be put in place to achieve a "big bang" approach to greater customer "empowerment." Over time, it seems pretty clear most utilities will embark on this journey. But for the large number of utilities that are just beginning these initiatives, what is a good place to start? From my perspective, deploying a web self-service portal for utility consumers is a relatively low cost - and low risk - starting point to go beyond the traditional paradigm. A portal, even as a deployment within existing legacy systems, will expand the types of customer service channels available to consumers, and can begin to "empower" them with greater and better information on their energy and water usage. The key of course is to select a portal that not only provides immediate benefits around account management, bill presentment and online payment, but also one that can adapt and expand as new components and systems like AMI, MDM and upgraded CIS are added to the mix. Deploying a portal in this manner provides the immediate benefits to utility consumers (and to utilities through lower live agent support costs), while providing the vehicle for more advanced "pilots" involving real-time analytics and energy efficiency/demand management programs which will take more time to mature in the market.

Smart Grid Hangover...continued

In the second of a series of blogs developed to address the "Smart Grid Hangover" Bill Fenstermaker discusses required investmests for the future of Smart Grid.

As the "Smart Grid Hangover" gives way to renewed analysis and scrutiny of new and ongoing capital investments required for Backhaul Infrastructure to support Smart Grid initiatives, it seems only natural for utilities to take a hard look at the massive investment that public wireless carriers in North America have already made in terms of infrastructure. And with the hype of 4G and the promise that this will bring to businesses and consumers in the next 3-5 years, I have to believe that at some point there will be a ceding of the need for control and management of the infrastructure by individual utilities to more of a shared risk model between these utilities and the public wireless carriers that have already deployed redundant infrastructure within their service territories. After all, why would a utility continue to heavily invest in Backhaul Infrastructure when in many cases it is a) already in place with significant failover and redundancy, and, b) an increasing number of the public wireless carrier(s) are more price-competitive than ever and willing to sign up for guaranteed SLA's with performance penalties. For those utilities stuck in the traditional meter reading mindset, there is clearly opportunity on the horizon. It will definitely be interesting to see how quickly this as well as other "disruptive" technological capabilities enter our markets in the coming years.

 

April 26, 2012

Smart Grid Hangover?

464_1.jpgPlease welcome Bill Fenstermaker to the Smart Utilities blog. Bill Fenstermaker is a Senior Client Services Executive with Infosys and has been involved in the Smart Grid community from the inception of AMI and smart metering. The following is Bill's insight into current industry inertia and customer service hurdles:

 

 

I recently overheard a prominent industry analyst use the expression "Smart Grid Hangover" in a conversation. What an interesting description for the state of grid transformation in our industry today. Clearly in the US, the last of the DOE/ARRA stimulus monies are waning, and there has not been a whole lot of new procurement activity so far in 2012 relating to "Smart Grid" as many utilities are completing smart meter deployment rollouts and interconnecting the back office IT systems to support these initiatives. Clearly the flood of stimulus dollars spurred much activity and a rush to deploy some/many elements to improve grid intelligence and "smart metering initiatives," yet there are equally as many utilities that are watching and learning from the experiences of their peers. You might even say that the spending binge is over and the "hangover" is setting in. I clearly think the market in North America will see a quiet period for 18-24 months as the utilities that have made investments in "Smart Grid" learn lessons about their vendor and technology choices, and focus on the next phases of their journeys. What, then should we be looking to as one of the next things in terms of challenges and opportunities? How about Customer Engagement, and Data Analytics?

Now, more than ever, utilities must begin to treat ratepayers as "customers" and there is significant opportunity for utilities and vendors at all levels to improve on customer engagement - via social media, improvement to the customer portal, and via smart devices like mobile phones and tablets. This is all about leveraging technology to give customers more choices and options for interaction with their utility.

On the Data Analytics front, the sheer number of increasingly intelligent instruments, controls  and intelligent sensors that utilities continue to deploy within all areas of their T&D infrastructure is generating a tsunami of data. And I have yet to hear a utility say they are truly effectively leveraging the data they have. Every one of them will say something like this - "we are really good at collecting data, but we are horribly inefficient at making sense of the data and we can't truly turn the data into "information." Now there are varying degrees of utility maturity in this area, but I do believe this presents a great opportunity in the marketplace for everyone. Utilities are spending money on Decision Support, Data Warehousing, Real-time Analytics, and Big Data Solutions today, and I would expect that as the industry in North America gets over its "Smart Grid Hangover" in the coming Quarters  we will see accelerated investment in complementary, enabling domains like Customer Engagement and Data Analytics.

 

April 24, 2012

Why not to enable the customer self-service in traditional way...

Customer self-service areas have been dominating by the "custom" work done by utilities since last decade. Traditionally it is being preferred to deliver the self-service by utilities' "own way" rather than leveraging the best practices across industries....of-course choices & options were also limited.

 

But these areas are rapidly transforming, perhaps at the same pace as smart grid is shaping up. There is emergence of some new products & platforms in this space that enable utilities to offer the self-services in more innovative ways that too in low cost & reduced time to market. These products / platforms are proven in multiple ways; provide scalability with benefits of future trends such as Cloud etc. So why to follow the traditional way of attempting to build / enhance the self-services by own?

 

 Infosys has been a great contributor in this space and had been serving the industry for last 15 years. Leveraging the best practices and research done, one such product "Infosys Customer Self-Service Energy Manager" is available to serve these areas.

 

Infosys is going to make available this product available along with social media & advanced analytics during CS week 2012 conference where Infosys product team, domain consultants will be available for the demo & discussion.

 

April 19, 2012

Plan B for Utilities

In my earlier blog Coming Full Circle, I talked about how the traditional electric utility model of centralized generation, transmission, distribution is under threat due to self-generation and various other factors. I presented a scenario where utilities are not able to align with these new trends and get stuck in a downward spiral. What is the Plan B for utilities in this case.

First of all, there is a need to recognize that a Plan B is needed. There are regulatory provisions (decoupling etc) to avoid rate base impact due to decrease in energy consumption because of DSM measures. However, no such provisions will be built if the utility electricity sales drop due to other better options available to customers, like distributed generation. No argument can be built to capitalize the cost due to this drop. Utilities are truly on their own here and mostly on unchartered territory of uncertain revenue.

Opportunity or threat? I think both. Smart utilities are already recognizing this threat and using it as an opportunity to bring changes in a business model that has served well for over 100 years but needs adjustments now. Successful utilities of the future might be the ones that move fast to identify opportunities beyond electricity sales and leverage their core capability to build new services and products across electricity value chain.

While there are big opportunities that need some serious investment and course correction, it is possible to find low-hanging fruits. At the end of the day, nobody knows how to run electricity operations better than a utility and there are utilities that do certain things better than others. Why not a utility-to-utility market? A utility that is just starting its AMI program, might want to have domain consultants from another utility that has successfully done it rather than spending millions on 3rd party consultants at many times the cost. Further, utilities are rich with intellectual properties built over a century of generating and supplying electricity. This is the time to evaluate all those data models, use cases, processes, procedures and work with an alliance network to explore other operating revenue opportunities. These can be leveraged to build joint go-to-market solutions in partnership with product vendors or system integrators.

There are bigger opportunities in emerging market segments like energy management and microgrids. Going beyond the power value chain, assets like towers, power lines, transportation fleets, communication network etc present immense commercial potential.

One may say that the utilities are in the business of selling electricity, not products or consulting services. But then, isn't it precisely the change that is needed as long as it does not alter the core mission of supplying safe and reliable power? Easier said than done. We are talking about some serious capability and direction re-alignment for utilities as well as their ability to garner support from regulators for these changes. It will be interesting to watch.

April 13, 2012

Role of Data analytics in Smart Grid

Data is the lifeline of any business. We all know that most of the organizations, whether public or private take day to day business decisions or strategic decisions based on data generally stored in large data repositories. The Power distribution utilities are not an exception to this. Smart Grid envisages to deploy several integrated critical applications / systems like advanced metering infrastructure, robust billing engine, various avenues of collection of receivables, geographical information system, asset management systems, field force management systems etc. leading to generation of tons of data. The smart move would be to convert this data into useful information to benefit the power distribution utility. 

In a power distribution utility there are several sources of data. Mentioning some of them for reference purpose. One of the major sources of data is Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), where most of the energy related data comes from. The deployment of smart meters on power transformers, distrbution sub-stations, distribution transformers, High tension feeders and consumer homes enables the distribution utility to collect data related to voltage, current, active & reactive power, energy consumption, demand, power factor etc. This data is not just for instantaneous in nature but also for load profile, cumulative and tamper. Another source of data is the distribution automation system (Control and automation system fitted on various feeders and control equipments). This data would be about the normally on contacts, the normally off contacts, the faulty feeders etc. and the status of the various equipments connected to the power distribution system. One of the other major sources of data is robust billing engine which houses data on individual meter readings, consumption history of consumer, applicable tariff, payment pattern, cheque bounce history, credit history, seasonal variation etc. There could be several other sources of data like supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), Geographical information system etc. These systems / applicationed mentioned above are indicative and there are definitely several other applications functional in a power distribution system which also generate data.   

The core challenge faced by the power distribution utilities today is to make the right decision about where to cut spending and where to invest? How to make the consumer satisfaction index go up? How to manage peaks within the given power constraints? How to optimize the operating expenses? and the list goes on.

The million dollar question is what the power distribution utilities are doing in order to make the best possible use of the plethora of data. How is this information being made use of in the day to day decision making? How is this inforation being displayed in form of a dashboard? How are the discrepencies in the system being highlighted or brought to the attention of the higher management? These are some of the questions which need to be answered along with the smart grid implementation.

Some of the benefits that could be derived by the power distribution utilities are listed below.
1. Cost reduction (Reduced operational cost on administrative, maintenance, repairs etc.)
2. Better consumer services (Faster restoration of no-supply complaints, More avenues for paying bills etc.) 
3. Improved consumer satisfaction indices (Happy consumers)
4. Reduction of peak demand (Better pallning and control)
5. Controlled and balanced use of electricity by consumers (Energy consumption)
6. Proactive load forcasting (Better planning)
7. Improved regulatory compliance

In a nutshell, Smart grid data analytics offers valuable information about the performance of the power distribution system and its various assets in order to help achieve several benefits as listed above. It all depends on how the utility makes use of this golden opportunity.

In my next blog I would talk about the various KPI's that could be measured and monitored based on the pool of data that is getting generated.

April 12, 2012

IT in Smart Grid

357_1_t.jpgInformation Technology (IT) has a significant role to play in smart grid space. Industries like banking, telecom and other business suites have already recognized the importance of information & data management using IT and now the energy companies will have to follow the same. As utilities are deploying the smart meters and smart grid solutions the role of IT will grow and will be one of the essential elements for utilities, not to a surprise. Smart Grid IT will make the today's utilities customer- centric by transforming them to understand their customer's need, communicate them effectively and provide new services that will benefit both customers and utilities.

IT not only plays an important role in transformation of  the utility - customer relationship but also equally plays and important role in providing solutions and key information to utilities operator to manage, control and monitor the electrical network in most efficient and effective way. Smart grid needs a more holistic view of how utility will operate at both a business and network level, which will require a greater co-operation between IT and OT teams. Historically IT and OT teams have work in isolated mode with a limited minimum communication between them. IT majorly focused on business process model and customer management systems whereas OT on monitoring and managing the electrical networks. Now both OT and IT have to join hands strongly to improve the operational efficiencies and drive the utility business to a next level of maturity.

IT provides a smart customer portal with key informations derived from the Advance Meter Infrastructure (AMI), Meter Data Management (MDM) applications and customer information system. It also provides utilities with smart operational and executive portals which play a significant role in obtaining operational efficiency in areas such as asset management, outage management and work force management, where there are sure benefits from a broader integration of operational and enterprise data. IT provides solutions and consultancy services to utilities which help them in their smart grid roadmap to define the new or modify business processes accordingly for e.g., the trouble call reporting and outage status information handling process changes with introduction of AMI/smart meters and OMS systems integration. With greater integration among several systems in Smart Grid space the IT will play significant role in large volume of data management & analysis, defining business process and system security. As the utility data and information will get exposed to out-of-box (utility closed entities) the need of right standards and frameworks are important for grid security.  IT can help in development of these standards and frameworks for the integration of utility data across applications and devices securely.

Prepay Billing and Payment Option (Part 2 - Solution to Regulatory challenges in US Market)

65_1.jpgFollowing on from my last blog on Regulatory challenges in US market on prepay service, I would now like to list out some of the solutions which can address the regulatory concerns.
Few Solutions:

  • First of all making prepay service mandatory to all customers doesn't seem to be a feasible option. Hence it will always be an optional/voluntary agreement.
  • Further to safeguard customer interests utility can choose to make certain customers like customers on life-support electric devices ineligible for this service so that knowingly also those customers won't fall into any risk.
  • Then whatever collection rules currently utilities have for their postpaid customers, those can be tweaked a bit so that they go well with prepaid service as well and still safeguard the customer.
  • For example, currently after a bill is generated customers normally get certain days of time for making a payment before late payment charges apply or disconnects get triggered. In prepaid service, similar to prepaid mobile phone balance alert or low gasoline indicator, sufficient number of alerts can be sent to customer whenever the prepaid balance falls below a certain level (like - balance will last another 7 days or 5 days or 3 days etc) based on the daily average usage before it gets remotely disconnected.
  • On top of this, based on the utility and corresponding PUCs (Public Utility Commission) rules like special provision for severe weather conditions, low income customers, even after prepaid balance becomes nil customer might still be allowed to use electricity up to a certain level which can be adjusted from the next recharge amount. Or if required, prepay service can also be automatically converted to postpaid service with a one-time conversion fee like deposit amount.
  • System can also check for spikes in energy usage -
    • To detect energy theft
    • To ensure that disconnects don't occur suddenly without having enough time to send the next alert

These types of details can definitely be worked out between the utility and the PUC depending on how flexible they want to be and this can geographically vary between different utilities.
The biggest problem we have is getting utilities to implement this concept. Once they deploy it, customers, utilities and PUCs will realize the benefits which are currently only on paper to them and I don't see any reason why this can't be a popular offering for both the utility and the customer.

April 5, 2012

Utility Inbox (Part 2 - Benefits to Utility & Customers)

Following on from my last blog on Utility Inbox where I discussed about the concept, I would now like to list out some of the benefits that this concept will provide to both Utility as well as the Customers.

Benefits to Utility & Customers:

  • Reduced Cost - Physical paper cost, printing cost, Postage cost to send these notices/messages/ letters to the customer, and manual labor cost associated to these processes can be eliminated.

  • Document Management - A copy of the exact content that has been sent to the customer will get automatically saved in Utility's outbox and can be archived, queried to support reporting requirements, legal requirements and also while addressing customer's call regarding the exact information that was sent.

  • Timely delivery and Early realization of revenue - The information can be delivered timely which would also give more time to the customer to respond (specially on time-sensitive notices) and won't face delays like no printing on holidays/weekends, no postal service on holidays/weekends, postal delivery issues. This would also help in early realization of revenues in some cases.

  • Greater Customer Satisfaction - Customer's will have all their utilities related notices/messages saved in a single inbox and there will be very less chance of losing them. This would also save them from handling and managing the physical papers and hence one less thing to bother about in their daily busy life.

  • Information Security - Information would remain secure and no need to bother about shredding the confidential information.

  • Remote access - Also customers would be able to get/access the information remotely even if they are not home and even if they are out of city, state, country. This will save some of the customers from getting penalized which might be happening currently if they are away from home and utility is sending any time-sensitive information to their postal address during that time.